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.
Despite all the difficulties, commonwealth officials predict their squad will live up to standards set by Soviet teams of Olympiads past. Viktor Mamatov, deputy chief of the commonwealth team, told Tass earlier that the squad should capture about 25 medals, including up to 10 golds (it won a gold and bronze in women's cross-country on Sunday). A big intangible is the athletes' competitive frame of mind. Most athletes say the problems at home have been a distraction.
"Sports in general is normally kept separate from politics. But, of course, politics can influence performance," says Andrei Bykov, a speed skater. "When the situation is unstable ... it certainly affects athletes."
Because the commonwealth's political and economic problems are relatively new, they may not be reflected in the results at Albertville, Ms. Kabutova says. But the summer Olympics in Barcelona, and beyond, is another story. First of all, the virtually unlimited funds available to athletes in the Soviet era have all but dried up. That will make it hard for the commonwealth to maintain standards of athletic excellence.
I'm afraid that in the future there won't be enough finances," says Kabutova, a 24-year-old specialist in the 500-meter speed skate sprint. "I wasn't able to participate in the European [speed skating] Championships because of a lack of money for transportation."
Some athletes think Albertville marks the last time a united commonwealth team will participate in the Olympics. Ongoing political differences probably mean that each republic will send a separate team to future Games. Ukraine, for one, is already in favor of fielding its own team.
Mr. Kozlovsky, the former Soviet Olympic Committee member, says a breakup would hurt more than help the 11 commonwealth member states. Unity, he adds, brings better results because money for training is spent more efficiently. He says the team's participation in Albertville under the Olympic banner may help end the inter-republican squabbling that's tearing the commonwealth squad apart.
"If people are human, those who see us competing under the Olympic flag will think about the low level at which we have arrived," Kozlovsky hopes. "If that sight doesn't wake people up, I don't know what will."