MOSCOW -- The Soviet juggernaut coming unglued? Frankly, it's old news. Everybody knows about the once well-oiled machine . . .
But listen to Valeri Krutov.
He's the chief diving coach here, and he said that, compared with 1988, his Olympic diving team will go to the Summer Games in Barcelona, Spain, and do better.
They're young, but not as young as they were in 1988, experienced, ready and eager.
His chief hopes lie with Dmitri Sautin, a slightly stocky, graceful 18-year-old from the city of Voronezh. Sautin won the European Cup this year and finished second at an international meet in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Krutov compares him to American Greg Louganis. He could be the one to bring a medal back to Moscow, something Soviet divers failed to do four years ago.
"That's my dream," Sautin said. "To win a medal there."
"But, of course, he shouldn't be thinking about medals," Krutov quickly interjected, while Sautin nodded silently. "He should be trying to fulfill what his coach has taught him. Athletes who think too much about medals rarely win them."
Rarely winning medals was not a habit with the old Soviet Olympic teams. They took 132 at the 1988 Games in Seoul, South Korea.
This time around, the team from the Commonwealth of Independent States is aiming for 138. Not bad for a nation in collapse.
In truth, Barcelona is both a first and a last hurrah.
Of course, things are different now. Of course, the past is irretrievably lost. Once, Olympic athletes were grandees of Soviet society. Today, they can't find fruit. The 400 state-supported sports schools are closing or closed. The diving team is living in a crummy hotel near a crummy train station.
Instead of disciplining themselves for competition, said Nikolai Rusak, director of the secretariat of the CIS Sports Council, "many of our athletes are thinking about how to get into business to provide for themselves and their families."
Three champion weightlifters -- Soviet heroes to a man -- couldn't qualify for the Olympics because they couldn't get to a preliminary competition in Wales. Rusak angrily denied that the team couldn't afford to send them. He said there had been a problem with their visas.
"It's ridiculous," he said. "Some of them could meet Olympic standards with one hand."
Yet, as much as things have changed, the 497 CIS Olympians are all the products of the old, formidable system. They may be penniless, hungry and distracted, but they are superior athletes.
Look for them to dominate in gymnastics, Greco-Roman wrestling and weightlifting (even without the three who missed qualifying, although a waiver may get them to Barcelona anyway).
Tanya Gutsu, a 16-year-old Ukrainian, is being touted as the next great gymnastics sensation.
L "I can assure you, we'll compete with the best," Rusak said.
If Barcelona is the first post-Soviet Olympics, it's also probably the last to field a team from the CIS. The CIS is more of a concept than a country. Teams in each sport will appear under the Olympic flag, as they did at the Winter Olympics. Winners of individual competitions, such as diving, will see the flags of their republics raised.
"Now, all we need to do is figure out which athletes belong to which republics," Rusak said.
Actually, about half of them are from Russia, with Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan making up most of the rest. Some team players from the Baltics have decided to stick with their CIS squads, even though Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are not in the CIS and are sending their own Olympic teams to Spain this year.
By 1996, though, the CIS Olympic experiment probably will be history, as each of the 15 republics of the former Soviet Union most likely will send its own team to Atlanta.
Rusak's office is in what used to be the big Soviet sports headquarters, nestled in a bend of the Moscow River. It's a self-important building with corridors leading to more corridors, wings to annexes, offices stacked upon offices. Everywhere are big, wall-mounted photos of past triumphs. High on the wall in Rusak's office is Lenin. On his bookshelf are Spanish and Soviet flags.
Well, the CIS doesn't have a flag, and he isn't representing the xTC Russians only, so the old hammer and sickle just will have to do.
But downstairs there's a sports equipment trading company -- spun off by the new CIS Sports Council in an effort to make money. And who else is paying for all this -- this former embodiment of the collective state's prowess? Smirnoff, the American vodka distiller, for one, and adidas, the German shoe manufacturer, for another. Together, they have put up $2.5 million for CIS Olympians.
The CIS governments are chipping in another 142 million rubles -- or about $1 million worth.
L It's not life as they once knew it here, but it's something.
Across Moscow, at the big pool built for the 1980 Olympics, grass grows through the cracks in the cement outside, windows are broken and training goes on in earnest.