There's an old Soviet joke that has Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev running a race around the Kremlin. It's the height of the Cold War and Nixon wins. A Soviet journalist asks, "How do we report that?" A Kremlin official answers, "Say Premier Khrushchev took an honorable second place." And Nixon? "Say that he came second to last."
Russia's dismal showing at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver has proven even harder to spin.
With four days to go until the end of the games, Russia is on track for its worst showing ever in a Winter Olympics. It has only 13 medals to its name -- well behind the United States' leading 28 -- and just three of those are gold.
Its current standing puts it in fifth place in the medal count. In most countries, that would be respectable. In Russia, a country raised on Soviet-era sporting glory, it's a downright tragedy.
The humiliations keep piling up. For the first time in 12 Olympics, a Russian team failed to take gold -- or any medal for that matter -- in pairs figure skating. For the first time in the same period, Russia took home no figure skating golds at all. Then there were the events of Wednesday night, when Russia's vaunted hockey team lost 3-7 to Canada. "Olympian Catastrophe," "Nightmare in Vancouver," "The Red Machine Runs into a Maple Tree" read the front-page headlines in Moscow.
The country is in an uproar -- when it's not battling a collective depression. The fact that Russia is due to host the next Winter Olympics, in the southern city of Sochi in 2014, has only added insult to injury.
Yet rather than launching a nationwide dialogue on the state of the country's athletics, the immediate instinct has been to reach for official blood.
The Liberal Democrats, a far-right nationalist party that holds seats in the State Duma, launched calls for the sacking of Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko. United Russia, the ruling party headed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, didn't seem to think that was a bad idea.