“It was okay,” Khvorikova said. “Because we also have the flag of our team.”
There are 334 Russian athletes competing at the Tokyo Olympics, plus a full complement of coaches, press agents and other personnel, many of whom can be heard cheering and chanting at mostly empty venues. Officially, they represent not their country, which is banned because of systemic doping abuses, but rather the Russian Olympic Committee.
The prevalence of “ROC,” as it is known and displayed on bibs, uniforms and scoreboards, is an inescapable reminder of Russia’s history of rule-breaking and, to some, the ineptitude of Olympic officials in confronting it.
The Russian flag is not allowed to be displayed by any official member of the delegation. When one of the Russians wins a gold medal, the arena fills not with the Russian national anthem but with the opening of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
After Day 7 of the Olympics, the Russian Olympic Committee ranked third in total medals with 34, 10 of them gold. Whenever a Russian wins a gold medal, the official Twitter account of the Kremlin sends congratulations from President Vladimir Putin.
Early this week, Russian swimmer Evgeny Rylov won the gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke. Countryman Kliment Kolesnikov took the silver, so he stood next to Rylov on the podium.
“Maybe deep in my heart, I do feel sad that we couldn’t hear the national anthem on the podium,” Kolesnikov said.
“Of course we are used to hearing the Russian national anthem and instead we heard Tchaikovsky,” Kolesnikov added later, after landing on another podium. “We wanted to sing along to the tune of the Russian national anthem.”
Russia’s ban emanated from its scheme at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, exposed by Russian anti-doping head-turned-whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov. Motivated to assert its dominance as the host country, Russian drug testers passed athletes’ samples through a hole in a wall and replaced them with clean ones. Rodchenkov, featured in the 2017 documentary “Icarus,” has gone into hiding.
The World Anti-Doping Agency originally banned Russia from international competition for four years. The Court of Arbitration for Sport last year reduced the ban to two years. All along, in an effort not to punish athletes who were not part of the scheme, international governing bodies have permitted Russian athletes to compete.
When the CAS announced the reduced penalties in 2020, U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart expressed disappointment in what he called “a weak, watered-down decision.” As he has watched the first half of the Games, he can separate the athletes from the country. “Of course, it is not fair to call into question any individual athlete’s performance, and all are presumed innocent unless and until proven otherwise,” he said. But in Tokyo, he has seen no evidence of actual punishment for Russia.
“Unfortunately, we’ve seen this horror film already — where the Russian state-sponsored doping program walks free and Russia wins while the IOC and WADA leaders attempt to pull the wool over the world’s eyes by claiming Russia is ‘banned,’ ” Tygart said in an email. “All can now see this ‘ban’ once again for the farce that it is. It is barely a ‘rebrand’ and will do nothing to stop the corruption in Russia and likely will embolden others willing to win by any means.”
Slightly veiled accusations surfaced during Friday night’s swimming session, in which American Ryan Murphy finished second to Rylov in the 200-meter backstroke and then voiced concerns without naming names.
“It is a huge mental drain on me … that I’m swimming in a race that’s probably not clean,” Murphy said. “It frustrates me, but I have to swim the field that’s next to me. I don’t have the bandwidth to train for the Olympics at a very high level and try to lobby the people who are making the decisions that they’re making the wrong decisions.”
Rylov, seated next to Murphy at the news conference, deflected the comments.
“I have always been for clean competition,” he said. ”… From the bottom of my heart, I am for clean sport. I’ve devoted my entire life to this sport. Ryan didn’t accuse me of anything, so I’d rather not comment” about what Murphy said.
The Russian Olympic Committee said plenty. On its official Twitter account, it posted a bromide alongside a photo of Murphy that read, in Russian: “You have to know how to lose. But not everyone can. And here we go again — the same old song about Russian doping is played by the old music box. Someone is diligently turning the handle.
“English propaganda is oozing verbal sweat onto the Tokyo Games. Through the mouths of athletes offended by defeats. We will not console you. We’ll forgive those who are weaker. God is their judge. He’s our helper.”
Even in the face of mountainous evidence, Russia has maintained innocence. The tension sometimes surfaces at the Olympics. On Wednesday, according to website Around the Rings, a reporter asked tennis player Daniil Medvedev after his third-round victory whether he believed Russian athletes had a stigma attached to them.
“It’s the first time in my life I’m not going to answer a question, and you should be embarrassed of yourself, and I think you should be out of the Olympic Games [and] the tennis tournaments,” Medvedev said. “And I don’t want to see you again.”
Medvedev then shouted, “First time in my life!” A group of Russian journalists in the mixed zone applauded.
In some cases, sanctions vary across sports. World Athletics, the governing body for track and field, has limited the Russian Olympic Committee to 10 athletes. But in Tokyo, the difference between Russia and the Russian Olympic Committee is barely felt, if felt at all.
“We are the team of Russian Olympic Committee,” Khvorikova said. “And we feel ourselves as Russian Olympic Committee team.”
At the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, Russians competed under the moniker Olympic Athletes from Russia, which did not stop Russian flags or cheerleaders from appearing at hockey games, where they performed sophisticated dance routines in outfits bearing the word “Russia.”
The dearth of fans in Tokyo prevents the same kind of ambush nationalism. Because everyone here is part of an Olympic delegation, no one can sneak a flag into the stands. But the personnel still has managed to complement some Russian victories with the ever-present chant, “Ru-see-a!” When an ROC fencer made his final touch at a fencing bout at Makuhari Messe Hall B, raucous cheers came from coaches and other Russian personnel.
In Russia, the sanctions have made little difference, other than providing Putin an opportunity to stoke resentment from the rest of the world.
In a video posted on a social media account, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova punches a boxing dummy with “PRESS” written across its chest, then answers questions at a faux news conference. The first inquiry is about athletes competing under the banner of the Russian Olympic Committee.
“The status does not matter,” Zakharova says. “The most important thing is the pride our sportsmen have, and the world knows of this.”
At the end of the video, Queen’s “We Will Rock You” plays. On the screen the title lyrics are spelled, “We will ROC you!”
“Of course, any athletic competition since Soviet times must have a mobilizing effect, especially when, because of the ‘unfairness’ of the West, athletes perform under the ROC brand,” Carnegie Moscow Center senior fellow and chair Andrei Kolesnikov wrote in an email. “There is a careful count of the number of medals — this has been in place since Stalin’s times: We must only win (hence, incidentally, the doping). The idiotic slogan ‘We will ROC you’ appeared.”
But, Kolesnikov said, the mobilization barely has happened among citizens. Russians are cheering for Russian athletes but not in a rabidly patriotic fashion.
“Even if the average Russian feels that the absence of a flag at the Games is unfair, this, like military and diplomatic victories, does not mobilize him to rally around the flag,” Kolesnikov wrote. “People just enjoy the victories [of which there may not be many] and have fun.”
“We have an entire conception of doping that ‘this is a flawed athlete,’ ” Oliver Catlin, co-founder of the Banned Substances Control Group and the son of anti-doping guru Don Catlin, said in an interview earlier this summer. “So rather than root out bad apples in the bunch, we should be looking for entire orchards. When you look at what the Russians did, we didn’t even have rules to address what they did.”
Tygart pointed out that individuals responsible for the Russian doping scheme have not been held accountable and state-sponsored doping has let down athletes everywhere, including Russia.
“I am just an athlete who are the same as others,” said Khvorikova, the sailor. “We are all competing. We are all making the start. We are all making the finish. And we are all throwing our boards inside one tent. We are a big family, and I am one part of it.”
Dave Sheinin in Tokyo and Isabelle Khurshudyan in Moscow contributed to this report.