NIKOLAI BALBOSHIN, a hulking Greco-Roman wrestler who won a gold medal at the 1976 summer Olympics, stands for everything that was once the Soviet sports machine - national pride and a winning tradition. It's hard for him to digest the thought that the once mighty Olympic juggernaut is no more. The decision taken by the team from the Commonwealth of Independent States to participate under the Olympic flag at the Albertville Winter Games is especially galling to him.
"It doesn't just bother me. It's offensive," Mr. Balboshin said at a recent Olympic gala in Moscow. Balboshin carried the Soviet flag during opening ceremonies at both the 1976 and 1980 summer Olympics.
Balboshin isn't the only one having trouble adjusting to the new reality. The upheaval that caused the demise of the Soviet Union and gave rise to the commonwealth hasn't bypassed the sports establishment. Because of political differences among commonwealth members, the squad doesn't have a proper name, national flag, or anthem.
When the opening ceremonies took place Saturday, the 140 athletes from five commonwealth states - Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan - marched behind the five-ring Olympic flag. The squad is officially called "The Unified Team" of former Soviet republics.
"We did our best to allow the athletes to compete. From this point of view, this is the best solution," Alexander Kozlovsky, a vice president of the former Soviet Olympic Committee, says of the name and flag.
The disappearance of the red banner with the hammer and sickle has demoralized many commonwealth athletes. Equally deflating is the fact that the Soviet national anthem will not be played in Albertville. If a Unified Team member wins a gold medal, the Olympic melody will play during the awards.
"For me, it was a blow," speed skater Tatyana Kabutova said recently. "All my life it was my dream to compete under the Soviet flag."
The Olympians may be disappointed at not participating under a Soviet pennant, but they should feel fortunate to be competing in Albertville at all, officials say. The commonwealth would have been unable to send a team to the small village in the French Alps were it not for the financial help of the International Olympic Committee, as well as a sponsorship agreement with the German sporting goods company Adidas.