PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — At first glance, Russia is shrugging off one of the stiffest penalties in Olympics history. Russian-born athletes are everywhere at these Winter Games, zipping down luge courses, jumping off ski ramps, pulling off triple axels. The nation has one of the Games’ largest delegations. It has won five medals. Its fans show up to arenas by the hundreds, draped in flags, waving pompoms and tricolor flags, chanting “Victory” at the top of their lungs.
But nearly one week into these Olympics, the visuals belie the sting.
Sanctioned for a long-running nationwide doping operation, the Russian group is in fact down 64 competitors from Sochi in 2014, cleaved of some of its best athletes. The beloved biathlon team was decimated. The top speedskater is at home. The medal pace is way behind the norm, and when Russians do reach the podium, they’re reminded of their bizarre place in these Games: Their anthem, like their flag, is banned in PyeongChang.
For Russians, these Olympics have become two things at once: a somber sporting moment but also a chance to project a defiant image to the world. At a time when Russia’s resurgence is redefining global politics, the nation is being humbled in the sports world, though not without a fight.
As part of the penalty set by the International Olympic Committee, Team Russia has even lost its name. Its athletes are officially stateless, dressed in bland colors, given the designation “Olympic Athletes from Russia.” But for some Russian media outlets, the Olympics-mandated term doesn’t get used. Team Russia is at these Olympics.
“They’re Russian athletes speaking the Russian language with the Russian soul,” said Igor Larionov, a former NHL player who broadcasts games for Russia’s Telesport. “It’s Team Russia.”
When the global Olympic body levied its sanctions in December, it kept open the door to PyeongChang for Russians without a proven history of drug use. At the time, no one knew how many athletes would be deemed eligible for the Games; evidence showed that more than 1,000 Russian athletes, across at least 30 sports, had been involved in doping since 2011. Athletes who wanted to compete in South Korea had to seek exemptions from an anti-doping panel. In the end, the IOC approved 169 Olympic Athletes from Russia. All but one of the approved athletes showed up to PyeongChang.
But the severity of the IOC’s penalties goes beyond delegation size. The country has been stripped of enough medals since Sochi to lose its first-place spot in those Games retroactively. Top athletes such as speedskater Viktor Ahn, biathlete Anton Shipulin and cross-country skier Sergey Ustiugov were barred from PyeongChang.
From sport to sport, Russian athletes have spoken cautiously about their place at these Games. Most have said they are just here to compete and don’t worry about the ban on their flag or their anthem. But several have spoken to a greater sense of purpose. When Semen Elistratov won a bronze medal in a short-track speedskating race, he said he was holding back tears.
“I dedicate this medal to all guys that have been excluded from these Games in such a hard and unfair way,” he said. “This medal is for you.”
“Of course every athlete wants to have his flag and his anthem when he stands on the podium,” said Victoria Moiseeva, a curler from St. Petersburg. “But if it has to be like that, it is. And I think we’re here to show that we’re clean and we still can do great.”
In Moscow, the Olympic ban has been portrayed by top officials as a Western-led campaign against a resurgent Russia. Many Russians don’t believe that their country engaged in a government-sponsored doping program, an echo of their doubts that Russian intelligence agencies interfered in the U.S. elections. In both cases, many Russians say that they don’t see enough solid evidence and chalk the allegations up to anti-Russian attitudes in the United States.
“Their goal is to humiliate Russian athletes in front of the world,” said Igor Ilin, 24, from Moscow, who came to the coastal city of Gangneung to watch Russia’s hockey team. “This is revenge for our triumph in Sochi. Because we were like the Soviet Union — the undisputed winner. The big guys decided to stop this.”
Ahead of the Games, some Russian politicians insisted the country should boycott the Games if its flag was going to be banned in PyeongChang. The debate only calmed after President Vladimir Putin said he recognized how important the Olympics were to athletes who had trained all their lives. “We will not prevent anyone from doing what they want,” he said.
But after athletes marched in gray at the Opening Ceremonies, questions flared again as to whether competing without a flag made the Games too shameful to participate in. Was it really acceptable, a journalist for leading tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda asked, that Russian athletes were performing under a white Olympic flag — “the flag of surrender”? In a December survey by pollster VCIOM, which is close to the Kremlin, 45 percent of Russians blamed “political forces of other countries” for the country’s Olympic suspension. Another 29 percent blamed Russian sports officials.
Among Russians who believe their athletes engaged in doping, many say that other countries do it, too — and that Russia attracted the ire of Western anti-doping enforcers because of geopolitics.
“If any other leading sports country was examined as intently as Russia and was the target of just as rigorous an anti-doping investigation, then I think you would have the same outcome,” said Oleg Shamonaev, a top editor of Sport Express, Russia’s biggest daily sports newspaper. “Russia is a convenient target.”
Shamonaev said his website’s most-read articles are largely about controversies surrounding the doping scandal. On Monday, for instance, Russian skeleton racer Nikita Tregubov said American and British athletes in PyeongChang have been refusing to greet him “because they’re set against us politically.”
Nevertheless, Russian image-makers are still trying to show that the country is taking things in stride. Kremlin network RT showed footage of an elaborate light show it said fans projected on the World Anti-Doping Agency headquarters in Montreal that said: “The only doping among Russian Olympic team is the support and love of Russian people.”
Zasport, the official clothing label for this year’s Olympic Athletes from Russia, is selling “I don’t do doping” sweaters in its Moscow flagship store. A store associate said the “OAR” neutral uniforms would be on sale soon.
If Russians have had a subdued reaction to the Games in Moscow, they have tried to make up for it in South Korea, where on the coast a Russian Olympics foundation has rented wedding hall space and turned it into a headquarters for visiting fans. Many of those fans have come from eastern Russia, including Vladivostok, a two-hour flight from Seoul.
What fans find at the wedding hall is the perfect symbol of Russia’s Olympic contortions: The venue is called, generically, the Sports House, but past security and through the doors, you can find charts of Russian medals, cardboard cutouts of Soviet hockey players, Russian cakes and tea, a DJ, several dozen red and white bean bags, at least seven framed photos of Putin, and a theater-sized screen that Wednesday showed a replay of figure skater Evgenia Medvedeva’s singles performance.
“Let’s give her a round of applause and witness the beauty she puts into it,” one person said, and the DJ cut the music.
After a few minutes, Medvedeva was done. The music came back on. Everybody scattered, and some started talking about Russia’s upcoming hockey game — one it would lose in an upset, 3-2.
A fan from St. Petersburg, Nikolay Malakhov, 36, had a ticket. The players would have to wear muted red-and-white uniforms saying Olympic Athlete from Russia, but Malakhov planned to sit in a crowd of friends, and he already was wearing his tricolor jersey.
“The fans — we are the flags,” he said.
Liz Clarke and Adam Kilgore contributed to this report.
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