Loud and proud Russians making themselves known in Pyeongchang

Swarms of Russians have descended on the Winter Olympics despite doping controversy

They wave huge “Red Machine” banners. They paint the country’s tricolour flag on their faces or stencil it in their hair. They cheer in clusters, wearing matching shirts and scarves, chanting “Roo-see-yaa!” in unison.

Swarms of Russian supporters have descended on the Pyeongchang Olympics, offering an emphatic answer to anyone who wondered if they were embarrassed or cowed by doping allegations that have kept scores of their athletes out of the games. Nyet. Nyet. A thousand times, nyet. “Our athletes, they are like any other athletes,” said Viacheslav Shkarin, a resident of Vladivostok, Russia, who was wearing a tall, furry white hat called a papakha on Sunday night at the Alpensia Biathlon Centre. “We think what has happened here is very unfair. We’re angry.”

They are also disappointed by the performance of Russian athletes, who have yet to win a single gold medal. Eleven days into the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Russia had won five gold medals and 18 overall. So far in South Korea, Russian athletes have zero gold medals and 11 overall.

But good luck finding anyone who blames their athletes or the government. Instead, they blame the International Olympic Committee, the organization which barred their best competitors and which they consider both corrupt and capricious. A few fans will concede that some of their athletes might have been doping. But more than 160? They want evidence. They want explanations. The testimony of the former head of Moscow’s anti-doping lab, and the results of two independent investigations, one for the World Anti-Doping Agency and another for the IOC, do not convince them.

“They tell us nothing,” Andrey Savinov, a 53-year-old Muscovite, said while waiting for the start of the biathlon, a sport where Russia had doping problems long before 2014. “They have explained nothing.” Savinov and his compatriots have come to support a team officially known as Olympic Athletes From Russia, in a Winter Games where both the Russian flag and the Russian anthem have been prohibited, at least from the field of play. These and other restrictions were imposed after an investigation determined that Russia ran what is arguably the most ambitious cheating conspiracy in sports history: a state-sponsored programme to provide athletes with performance-enhancing drugs, coupled with elaborate countermeasures to beat urine tests. Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, has denied that the state-sponsored program was in place.

The efforts produced striking results at the Sochi Games, where Russia won a total of 29 medals, 11 of them gold, the most of any country. (Four of those medals were ultimately stripped over doping violations.) The meager haul this year does not surprise Russians because so many of their greatest contenders are not contending. For this, most of the opprobrium is directed at the IOC, but some think that the United States is somewhat culpable, too. “Who is the biggest sponsor of the games?” asked Savinov, a former international speedskater. “It’s NBC. They pay billions of dollars for the rights to broadcast.” Like a lot of Russian fans, Savinov was dressed to billboard his indignation. He wore a Sochi 2014 winter hat and a bright white and red jacket with “R U” on the front. On a sleeve was a patch that read “Russian Olympic Team.” Not far away, a woman waved a huge, Russia-themed flag with a bear on it.

The Russian flag is an object the athletes are careful to avoid. Hockey star Ilya Kovalchuk has reportedly asked flag-bearing fans who want a selfie to, at least momentarily, hide the flag. He and the other athletes from Russia had to agree not to register any protests. Even a selfie with a flag in it could be construed as dissent.

There are no such restrictions in the stands, of course, and, other than the South Koreans, Russian fans might be the most visible cohort here. It is difficult to discern whether these Russians are here as true “fans” or whether they are part of sponsored group that has been sent here – by the government, or the collection of oligarchs who support Olympic sports – to stick up for the country and wave banners in a language that is not their own. Regardless, for sheer enthusiasm, their only rivals are the Norwegians, who are avid face painters with access to an apparently limitless supply of plastic Viking helmets.

They are not nearly as loud as the Russians, however. At the hockey game against the United States on Saturday, Russian fans camped in a mass of blue and red behind both nets. Many sported stickers and hats that read “Russia in My Heart,” a phrase that became a rallying cry of sorts of a few months ago, as it became clear that “Russia” would not appear in the Olympics. They sang Russian folk songs. They screamed “Russia, forward!”

They also erupted at each goal into a hopping, joyful horde. Their side won, 4-0, so they had plenty to hop about.

By contrast, there was not a single Russian who qualified for the men’s 15-kilometer mass start biathlon. The country’s best prospect, Anton Shipulin, was among a few dozen athletes whose appeal for admission to the Olympics was denied just as the games began. He had been training right up to the final decision, skiing with his cellphone in his pocket and hoping for a text message with some good news, according to the British publication Express.

It never came. Russian fans showed up at the race anyway, falling into a distinctly foul mood when talk turned to the event. “Why isn’t Shipulin here?” said Shkarin, the white-hatted fan from Vladivostok. “Why?” Once his pique had passed, he pivoted to a note of optimism. “I love the Olympics,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to the 2022 Games in Beijing.” - New York Times

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