Thursday, February 22, 2018

MOSCOW — Doping scandals and a distinct lack of gold medals have left Russians with little to cheer about at the Winter Olympics, but sports fans were in full voice on Wednesday afternoon at a central Moscow bar as their men’s ice hockey side stormed to a 6-1 win over Norway to book a place in the semifinals.

It’s a rare note of clarity in the confused response to the Team That Dare Not Speak Its Name. The Russian Federation name, flag and anthem were barred from the South Korean extravaganza.

Sports fans who have known epic Winter Olympic success — and who hosted the Sochi Games four years ago — are still trying to figure out how they feel about the “Olympic Athletes from Russia,” the bureaucratic compromise name under which Russian athletes are competing.

“Russia! Russia!” chanted about a dozen ecstatic fans grouped around multiple television screens at the bar, just a short walk from the Kremlin.

“They might be the ‘Olympic Athletes from Russia’ to the rest of the world, but to us they are still simply Russia,” said Dariya Kuznetsova, a 20-year-old university student.

State media commentators have ignored the team’s unwieldy official title and usually refer to the country’s Olympic competitors as simply “our athletes.”

SPECIAL COVERAGE: Pyeongchang 2018 Olympics

The International Olympic Committee in December banned Russia from the Pyeongchang Games as punishment for what it said was a massive, state-organized doping program at the 2014 Games in Sochi. As a compromise, it allowed Russian athletes who could prove they were clean to compete in Pyeongchang individually, although any medals won would not be credited to Russia’s historic count.

Although President Vladimir Putin acknowledged that doping was a problem in Russian sport, he denied that state officials encouraged the use of banned performance-enhancing substances.

The decision to bar the Russian team provoked anger across the country. Many saw it as an example of anti-Russian attitudes and a sign of malign U.S. and Western influence over the IOC. In Perm, a city in Russia’s Ural region, a straw dummy of Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of the Moscow anti-doping laboratory turned whistleblower, was burned this week at traditional celebrations to mark the last day before Russian Orthodox Lent.

To add insult to injury, Russia lost one of the few medals it has managed to win in Pyeongchang when curler Alexander Krushelnitsky and his wife were stripped of their Olympic bronze medal in mixed-doubles curling after he tested positive for the banned drug meldonium. It would have been Russia’s first-ever medal in the sport.

Athletes who decided to go Pyeongchang to compete in the games were accused of betraying their homeland.

“Either you are a patriot or you go to the Olympics,” Anatoly Kuzychev, a state television presenter, said during a popular talk show ahead of the Winter Games.

Rooting for the underdog

But once the Olympics kicked off on Feb. 9, such talk was largely forgotten as Russians got behind their depleted, underdog team, said Sergey Lisin, a senior editor at Match TV, Russia’s biggest sports channel. A large, highly visible contingent of Russian fans, brandishing the flag that their Olympic squad is forbidden to wear, have descended on Pyeongchang to cheer on their heroes.

“People realize that our team isn’t at full strength, and so their support is even more wholehearted than at previous Winter Olympics,” Mr. Lisin told The Washington Times. “I personally don’t know anyone who thinks our athletes are unpatriotic for competing.”

It was an opinion echoed by the fans in the central Moscow bar. “Athletes prepare for the Olympics their whole lives,” said Yury Pavlin, 19. “Why should they let politics get in the way of their dreams, especially if they have had nothing to do with doping?”

Still, even with 168 “OAR” athletes competing in the 15 sports at the Winter Games, the medal haul has been disappointing: just four silvers and eight bronzes through Wednesday night. That is good for eighth among the nations competing this year, but Russia is the only team among the first 16 countries not to have a gold medal.

At Sochi, Russia led the medal chase among all countries with 29 total, including 11 golds. The last best hopes for gold in Pyeongchang may be in women’s figure skating, where two young Russian skaters are among the favorites, and ice hockey, where the Russian — sorry, OAR — team plays a semifinal match against the Czech Republic on Friday night.

There was a glimmer of hope that the Russian flag may yet make an appearance at the games. The IOC reported that the Russian Olympic Committee has paid in full the $15 million fine levied on it to help fund the development of a global anti-doping system for athletes, a key requirement cited in the suspension of the Russian team in December. Agence France-Presse reported this week that IOC officials were weighing whether to reinstate Russia and the country’s tricolor flag to fly at closing ceremonies Sunday.


But the stripping of the curling medal — which could complicate the IOC’s decision — has only fed many Russians’ ambivalence.

Pro-Kremlin media have suggested that Mr. Krushelnitsky’s drug test was spiked with meldonium, the performance-enhancing drug first synthesized by Soviet scientists in the 1970s, and hinted at a plot to further blacken the international reputation of Russian sport.

Dmitry Smirnov, a journalist with Sport Express, one of Russia’s top sports newspapers, suggested that foreign intelligence services could have been to blame.

The opinion found strong support on Russian social media.

“This is just a plot by the Yankees to destroy Russian sport,” wrote one Twitter user.

One of the more unusual theories pushed by state media was that Mr. Krushelnitsky could have taken an over-the-counter hangover remedy without knowing it contained meldonium: “This is a celebration of sport, but there’s no prohibition there.”

As conspiracy theories swirled, Moskovsky Komsomolets, a popular Russian newspaper, carried out an experiment to determine whether coffee spiked with the banned substance would taste different from normal coffee. A volunteer at the newspaper ruled that it tasted even better.

“I’m not sure what to think about this,” said Mr. Pavlin, the sports fan, as Russia’s ice hockey team hammered home its sixth goal against Norway. “Lots of athletes probably use doping. But I’d like to think it’s all some kind of mix-up. The alternative would be just awful.”

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