BEIJING — Inside the Olympic bubble, everyone calls them Russians.
Olympics organizers prefer to refer to them collectively as the “Russian Olympic Committee”, to avoid the country’s name, flag and anthem as punishment for past doping scandals.
But at events, they are simply Russians, as in “the Russians were too strong today” or “did she overtake the Russian?”
Because, whatever the name, they remain a force at the Games, second in the medal count behind Norway, and always under scrutiny, whether for competitive or other reasons.
This is the third Olympics Russia has participated in with restrictions imposed due to an extensive state-sponsored doping and cover-up program at the 2014 Sochi Games it hosted.
Last week came the revelation that her star figure skater, a 15-year-old girl named Kamila Valieva, who is heavily favored to win a gold medal in the individual event on Thursday, had tested positive for a banned substance several weeks before the Games. While a medal ceremony would be put on hold if she finished in the top three, she was allowed to skate while her case is investigated, much to the chagrin of some competitors.
This, added to the backdrop of a threat of Russian invasion of Ukraine, drew attention to the Russians.
The sport is often called war minus shooting, but at the Winter Olympics there is occasional shooting. Athletes from Russia and Ukraine, among others, compete in biathlon, which combines skiing and rifle shooting. They skied and shot nearby; no one was hurt.
But the cooperative spirit of the Games didn’t stop the questions.
“I don’t think we are able to discuss political issues at the Games because the Olympics were originally designed to foster unity not hostility and we are all here to advance our common cause” , said Denis Spitsov, a Russian cross-country skier, after winning a gold medal on Sunday. “We are here to win, so let’s leave the politics to the politicians.”
And while they may represent their country, the athletes are athletes with typical displays of sportsmanship and camaraderie born from months or years on the same competitive circuit. Look no further than a Russian and Ukrainian aerial skier kissing after winning medals on Wednesday.
- In limbo: Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva, who tested positive for a banned substance, has been cleared to compete. If she finishes on the podium, her competitors will be denied the joy of an Olympic medal ceremony.
- No chance of victory: Several Beijing skiers hail from countries with little snow, thanks to an initiative to increase diversity. Their presence, however, is not without controversy.
- the Quest for good food: Athletes, officials, volunteers and hungry journalists have tried, with effort and perseverance, to find delicious moments of culinary entertainment, no matter how small.
When Eduard Latypov, a Russian biathlete, tested positive for coronavirus and had to isolate himself in Germany last month, Erik Lesser, a German competitor, loaned Latypov a bicycle so he can continue training. “He helped as a friend and it was worth a lot,” Latypov said after winning a bronze medal. “That’s a biathlon family, making such gestures.”
It’s unclear how the Games held in China have affected the calculus in deciding if and how to speak out, if at all. After Vladyslav Heraskevych, a Ukrainian skeleton athlete, posted a sign that read ‘No war in Ukraine’, the Olympic committee refused to punish him because they considered it a ‘general call for peace’.
And when it comes to doping issues, most athletes keep their suspicions not intended for the public, at least during the Games. Consider that the Russians, clean or not, are often the best in a given sport and who doesn’t want to compete against the best?
“Russia are super good,” said Madelein Dupont, a curler from Denmark, after her team beat Russia in a round robin match. ” It’s not a secret. It’s been one of the best teams in the world, obviously, for a long time. And beating this team is a great achievement.
Of course, not everyone is so optimistic about Russia’s participation in these Olympics. American commentators fell silent during Valieva’s short program on Tuesday, and Adam Rippon, the coach of one of the Americans, said vehemently that Valieva should not be allowed to continue competing after testing positive for a prohibited drug.
Yet Russian athletes, despite Sochi’s doping cloud, are tired of being found guilty by association.
“I think it’s wrong to ask us these questions – you don’t get these results all of a sudden, you don’t become an Olympic champion, because it takes years and years of training,” said the Russian cross-country skier Alexander Bolshunov. noted after a race.
“I don’t know anything about Kamila and I’m so tired of these questions,” Russian bobsledder Nadezhda Sergeeva said in English. “It’s my Olympics. I don’t know about this team. And here I’m competing and everyone asks me about Kamila. This is my competition. I don’t know.”
Valieva’s positive sample was given on Dec. 25 during the Russian national championship, but it took the lab nearly seven weeks to process, a delay that is part of the investigation. The only athletes to test positive at the Games are an Iranian skier, Hossein Saveh Shemshaki, who finished 84th in the only race he finished, and a Ukrainian skier, Valentyna Kaminska, who finished 70th and 79th in her two individual races.
Yet, it came to this: every gesture that a Russian athlete makes seemingly outside the norm, harmless or not, is analyzed for its hidden meaning.
After a surprise victory over the United States in the semifinals of the speed skating team pursuit, Russian Danil Aldoshkin celebrated by holding out the middle finger.
Never mind that Aldoshkin’s gesture was directed at the sparse crowd, in the exact opposite direction from the Americans, who said they hadn’t seen him. “I don’t even remember what happened after we crossed the line,” Aldoshkin said. “It was my first Games and my first medal. I didn’t mean to offend anyone, so please excuse me if I did.
Ruslan Zakharov, Aldoshkin’s teammate, explained why it made no sense for Aldoshkin to show anger towards the Americans. “In speed skating, you’re fighting against time, not against an opponent,” he said.
At a post-race awards ceremony hours after the gesture, the Russian athletes, who won the silver medal, gathered the victorious Norwegians and the Americans, who finished third, for a group photo.
What to do with that?
Jonathan Abrams contributed report.