Olympic Athletes from Russia enter the Stadium
Olympic Athletes from Russia enter the Stadium under the Olympic flag.

Wait, the Russians are here?

The casual fan of the Olympics likely heard that the Russian team was banned from the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. In actuality, the International Olympic Committee, based on reports of state-sponsored and systematic doping, decided to suspend the Russian National Olympic Committee, thus removing their eligibility to select and send their athletes to the Olympics.

Russians celebrate first OAR medal at 1500 mens short track finals
Russians celebrate first OAR medal at 1500 men’s short track finals.

However, the IOC still created a process to review individual athletes from Russia, and then make a decision to invite them if they passed “strict conditions.” As a result, while 47 coaches and athletes were banned from attending, there are actually 168 Russian athletes at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. By contrast, Russia had 179 at the 2010 Vancouver Games and 225 in Russia a the Sochi Olympics.

 

Russia Fans at Snowboading Slop style
Russia Fans at snowboarding Slope style

 

In other words, the Russian team, under the name IOC designation, “Olympic Athletes of Russia” (OAR), is in force in South Korea.

And so are their fans.

Fans donning the white, blue and red of Russia are omnipresent, visible and audible. Smiling and proud, they are happy and proud to cheer on their Russian, waving Russian flags.

Russia Fans at Pairs Figure Skating
Russian Fans at Pairs Figure Skating

The Russian athletes are also happy for the fan support, but have had to be careful, as they can’t be seen publicly with symbols that associate them to Russia. As the AP reported, former NHL #1 draft pick for the Atlanta Thrashers and star for the New Jersey Devils, Ilya Kovalchuk, has had to warn fans to put away their Russian flags if they want pictures with the star left wing for Team OAR.

Olympics: Ice Hockey-Men Team Group B - RUS-USA
Ilya Kovalchuk (71) celebrates with defenseman Vyacheslav Voinov (26) and forward Pavel Datsyuk (13) after scoring a goal. USATSI

“We won’t chase (fans) away” if they’re carrying Russian flags, Kovalchuk said Tuesday. “If there’s an IOC rule then we’ll talk to them, explain it and take a photograph without the flag.”

There is no Russia House, a venue at Olympiads where athletes, media, family and friends can gather. But according to Reuters, Russia did create a place called “Sports House” in Gangneung, near the ice hockey venues, where supporters can “celebrate the athletic success.”

So yes, the Russians are here, and their fans are happy they are.

Chloe Kim
Chloe Kim

Someone in Seoul recently wrote to me that many South Koreans are not so excited in the Winter Games to be held in their home country because there are no Korean superstars like Yuna Kim at these Games. I’m sure that will change if it hasn’t already.

Having said that, one of the biggest young talents coming to PyeongChang is a first-generation Korean. She will, however, be competing for the US. Her name is Chloe Kim. She is one of the best snowboarders in the world, becoming the youngest gold medalist at the Winter X Games at the age of 14. A year later she became the first person under 16 to win three gold medals, as well as the first woman to complete back-to-back 1080 spins in a competition, the only person other than the legendary snowboarder and teammate, Shaun White, to do so.Kim began snowboarding at 4

Born in California to Korean-born parents, Kim began snowboarding at 4. According to this SI article, she moved to Switzerland, where her parents met, for a couple of years of elementary school, where she added French and learned how to ply the halfpipe.

A Korean who won’t be returning is Viktor Ahn. With 3 gold medals and a bronze at the 2002 Salt Lake City and 2006 Torino Olympiads, Ahn (formerly known as Ahn Hyun-Soo) is one of the most decorated Olympians in South Korean history.

Unfortunately, following the 2006 Torino Games, the relationship between Ahn and his coach of the very successful Korean short track men’s team became tenable at best. Eventually, Ahn was put in a different group coached by the women’s track team, and the relationship became, apparently, unrepairable.

In 2008, Ahn fractured his knee while training, taking him out of action, and making it impossible for him to defend his world championship titles in 2008 and 2009. So when trials began for the 2010 Sochi Olympics, Ahn was not able to qualify due to the lack of points from not participating in the prior World Cups, so Ahn, somewhat surprisingly, was left off the South Korean squad heading to the 2010 Vancouver Games.

President Vladimir Putin Honours Russian Olympic Athletes
Putin and Ahn

In a tremendous shock to Korea, Ahn became a Russian citizen, and joined the Russian national team in time for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, where he had a successful comeback – three more gold medals and a bronze.

It goes without saying, with the Russia team under the dark cloud of state-sponsored cheating in addition to his “defection” to Russia, Koreans may have been looking forward to welcoming or heckling their for me star back to Korea. Unfortunately, that dramatic storyline never emerged.

While the IOC has approved over 160 Russians to compete at the Pyeong Chang Olympics, that list did not include Ahn, the taint of Russian medal winners who trained during the height of the state-sponsored doping machine prior and during the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Ahn is despondent, as he explained to RT:

This is really a very difficult situation. The IOC hasn’t specified any reasons for my exclusion from the Olympics. I don’t understand why they have made such a decision. I really can’t say anything right now. I’m still waiting, but if the situation is not resolved we will take action. During my entire career journey in short track, I’ve never given a reason to doubt my honesty and my integrity, especially when it comes to my victories which I achieved with nothing but my strength and dedication.

IX Winter Olympics in Austria, 1964

There were whispers.

The four-time Olympian and 7-time medalist in cross-country skiing, including three gold medals, Eero Mantyranta of Lankojarvi, Finland was a legend in his country and his sport. But he could not outrace the rumors of blood doping when he competed.

As a child, everyone in Lankojarvi skated and skied, but Mantyranta excelled, winning his first cross-country ski race at the age of 7, and then dominating all takers into his early teens. Eventually he was able to find employment as a border patrol guard, who got around his territory on skis. As a twenty-year old, he made the Olympic squad that traveled to Squaw Valley, California for the 1960 Winter Games, snagging a gold medal in the 4x10km cross-country ski event.

Four years later at Innsbruck, Austria, Mantyranta was one of the Games’ stars, taking two more golds in the 15 and 30-km races, as well as a silver medal in the 4x10km relay. And in his third Olympics, Mantyranta tool home a silver and two bronze medals.

All that success only encouraged the rumors. After all, it was known since he was a teenager that Mantyranta had “high hemoglobin and far more than the usual amount of red blood cells,” according to David Epstein, author of the fascinating book, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. “Normally, those are signs that an endurance athlete is blood doping, often with a synthetic version of the hormone erythropoietin, or EPO. EPO signals the body to produce red blood cells, so injecting it spurs an athlete’s own body to bolster its blood supply.”

But also according to Epstein, the rumors were untrue.

First there were indications that other members of the Mantyranta family also rested for high levels of hemoglobin, but because there were little ill effects from higher-than-average hemoglobin levels, doctors were never concerned. But this coincidence made hematologists from Finland wonder. After putting the Finnish Olympian through additional blood testing, it was learned that in fact Eero Mantyranta had very low levels of EPO, and that when most people stopped producing hemoglobin based on what the body considered enough, Mantyranta’s body was genetically designed to continuouisly pump out hemoglobin.

And more hemoglobin meant not only very ruddy cheeks. It also meant high levels of oxygen circulated inside Mantyranta, a significant advantage that allowed him to ski faster and longer than almost every other cross-country skier. Most certainly, Mantyranta’s singular drive to train and increase his performance as a cross-country competitor was essential to his Olympic success. But most certainly, so was this genetic advantage.

Here’s how Epstein remembered Mantyranta in this obituary, when the great cross country skier passed away in 2013.

Being born with talent is one thing; alchemizing it into Olympic gold entirely another. And though I drew attention to Eero’s startling biology, that’s worth remembering as well. I’ll remember Eero the way he was when I met him. A jovial and remarkable-looking man, with dark, slicked-back hair and prominent cheekbones that seemed to pull at the corners of his mouth, giving him a slightly inquisitive look. There was a thickness about him, a barrel chest and bulbous nose. I remember when he shook my hand, I felt as if he could’ve crushed my fingers, and I noticed that his middle finger was bent at a right angle from the top joint. He spent the brief period of Arctic winter sunlight that day working in his reindeer yard. I thought he must have been the strongest seventy-three year old I had ever met. That’s how I’ll remember him.

Eero Mantyranta at home

Sochi Olympics Ski Jumping Men
Noriaki Kasai celebrates winning the silver medal Saturday after the ski jumping large hill final at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia. | AP

Noriaki Kasai has qualified for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics as a member of Japan’s ski jump team. And in one respect, no one has ever flown higher. Kasai will participate in his eighth Winter Olympic Games. No one has ever done that.

There are actually 11 other Olympians who have participated in 8 or more Olympics, but they all have been participants in Summer Olympic competitions like equestrian, sailing, canoeing, rowing and shooting events. Tied with him at 7 Winter Olympiads was Albert Demtschenko from Russia, who could have joined Kasai as an 8th straight winter Olympian, but was banned for life from the Olympics in December, 2017 for doping.

That’s what happens when you put skill and longevity together. “Legend,” as Kasai is called in Japan, has not only won 2 silver medals and a bronze medal in the Olympics, he has two Guinness World Records for appearances in international ski jump events.

Most interestingly, he has been immortalized in a song called “Mr. Noriaki Kasai,” by the Finnish punk rock band, the Van Dammes.

That is indeed the stuff of legends.

Alexander Zubkov (L) and Alexey Voyevoda
Alexander Zubkov (L) and Alexey Voyevoda of Russia team 1 celebrate on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Men’s Two-Man Bobsleigh on day ten of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Medals Plaza on February 18, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. Unfortunately for Voyevoda, Zubkov was DQ’ed.

After finishing 11th in the medal standings at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, with a total of only 15 medals and 3 gold medals, Russia made a commitment to do better in their home country for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. In fact, Russia, finished at the top of the medal table with 33 total medals, including 13 gold medals.

Flash forward to 2017, and the table has turned.

After a review of the McLaren report on Russian state-sponsored doping prior to the Sochi Games, the IOC on December 5, 2017, banned the Russian National Olympic Committee from its participation in the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. This decision means that no official team can represent Russia, but individuals from Russia can apply to participate in PyoengChang as a member of the Olympic Athletes of Russia (OAR), assuming it can be shown they were not part of the Russian doping machine.

As you can see in these tables from an NBC Sports article, Russia has suddenly plummeted in the Sochi medal tables from first to fifth. In the current standings, the USA is at the top of the overall medal count at 28, while Norway takes the lead in gold medals with 11.

Sochi Medal Rankings Top Five

This may not be the final revision. The IOC could decide to move other competitors up the medal ranks to replace the disqualified athletes. While the possible revisions below are dramatic, they actually would not have any further impact on the top five standings, although Latvia would move up from 23rd overall to 20th, thanks to the addition of 2 bronze medals.

  • Biathlon (women’s sprint): Russian silver medalist, Olga Vilukhina, was disqualified. Vita Semerenko of the Ukraine and Karin Oberhofer of Italy could move up to silver and bronze.
  • Biathlon (women’s relay): Members of the silver-medal winning Russian team, Olga Vilukhina, Yana Romanova and Olga Zaitseva, were disqualified. Norway could move up to silver, Czech Republic to Bronze.
  • Bobsleigh (two-man): Alexandr Zubkov was disqualified and stripped of his gold medal, which was unfortunate for his teammate Alexey Voyevoda, who was not disqualified. In this case, Switzerland could move up to gold, while the US could end up with a silver. Latvia might win bronze in this case.
  • Bobsleigh (four-man): As three of the four members of the Russian bobsleigh team, Alexandr Zubkov, Alexey Negodaylo and Dmitry Trunenkov, were disqualified, again Voyevoda appears to get stripped of his gold without being disqualified. Latvia and the US could move up to gold and silver. Another Russia team could have taken bronze, but they also had disqualified members on the team, which opens up the possibility of fifth place Great Britain taking bronze.
  • Cross-country skiing (men’s 50k freestyle): As written in an earlier post, Alexander Legkov and Maxim Vylegzhanin were disqualified, allowing Russian country man Ilia Chernousov to potentially trade his bronze medal for gold, with Martin Johnsrud Sundby of Norway and Sergei Dolidovich of Belarus moving up to silver and bronze.
  • Cross-country skiing (men’s team sprint): Like the 50k freestyle, Vylegzhanin’s DQ results in the stripping of Russia’s silver medal. Sweden and Norway could move up to silver and bronze.
  • Skeleton (men’s): Gold medalist, Alexander Tretyakov, was disqualified, leaving the door open for Martins Dukurs of Latvia to take gold, and American Matthew Antoine to take silver. Another Latvian, Tomass Dukurs, finished in fourth so is hoping for a medal as well.
  • Skeleton (women’s): Bronze medalist Elena Nikitina was disqualified, opening the door for a new bronze medalist, Katie Uhlaender of the US.
  • Speed skating (women’s 500-meters): Olga Fatkulina, was stripped of her silver medal, which means that Margot Boer of the Netherlands could claim silver, and Zhang Hong of China could be awarded a bronze.
Maxim Vylegzhanin, Alexander Legkov, Ilya Chernousov, XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi
Maxim Vylegzhanin, Alexander Legkov, Ilya Chernousov, XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi © Alexander Vilf / Sputnik

It was a proud moment for a proud nation.

Three Russians stood on the medal podium in the 50k freestyle cross-country skiing competition, on the last day of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. In a spectacular finish to a grueling race, Russia’s Alexander Legkov and a few others broke the pack of about 30 skiiers for a final push.

And the push was up a steep incline before entering the stadium. Legkov pushed past the finish line after a tough 1 hour 46 minutes and 55.2 seconds, only 0.7 seconds ahead of compatriot, Maxim Vylegzhanin, and 0.8 seconds ahead of another Russian, Ilia Chernousov.

As Russian teammate, Sergey Gamuzov, gushingly exclaimed in this article, “Russia power, Alexander Legkov, the power of Russia! It was wonderful day!”

That was then. This is now.

In late December, 2016, Legkov and Vylegzhanin were suspended by the International Ski Federation after their names came up in the now-famous McLaren report on state-sponsored doping in Russia, particularly during the lead up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia. The IOC made it official by giving Legkov and another Russian skier, Evgeniy Belov, on November 1, and four more Russian cross-country skiers on November 9, including Vylegzhanin, lifetime bans in Olympic competition. They will also have to forfeit the medals they won.

There is very little written about it, but for some reason, third-place winner, Ilia Chernousov, has not been implicated in the doping scandal, so for now, he retains his bronze medal. And while no decision has been made in distribution of medals, it’s very possible that the 4th and 5th place winners in the Sochi 50k cross country ski competition – Martin Johnsrud Sundby of Norway and Sergei Dolidovich of Belarus – could receive medals, with Chernousov becoming the gold-medalist.

Sochi 50k cross country ski medal standings

Predictably, the Russian skiers are not happy, as written in the Russian English news site, RT.

“Foreign officials are trying to put pressure on our country,” said Alexander Legkov, who was stripped of his 50km gold and 4x10km relay silver earlier this month by the International Olympic Committee. “The athletes are pawns in this game, and easiest to punish.”

“I haven’t got the faintest idea of any state-sponsored doping system,” said Legkov, who insists that he competed fairly, and always worried about his clear samples being contaminated.

“It’s hard when people don’t believe you. You open up to people and tell them the truth, but they are closed to you,” added Maksim Vylegzhanin, who had three Sochi silvers taken away from him.

On December 5, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned the Russian National Olympic Committee from the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, taking a significantly bolder stance than they did at the 2016 Rio Olympics when they only delegated that decision to the international sports federations.

As the actual team was not banned, individual Russian athletes will still likely be able to apply for participation on their own if it can be shown they were not involved in the state-doping program for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. If they are allowed to join the PyoengChang Olympics, they will participate under the banner of OAR (Olympic Athlete from Russia), and if they win a gold medal, they will hear the Olympic Anthem, not the Russian anthem.

Several days later, the head of the International Fencing Federation (FIE) and billionaire Russian national, Alisher Usmanov, wrote a letter to the IOC with an appeal. While Usmanov makes no defense of those athletes who have used doping as a systematic part of their training and development, he claims that those Russian athletes who are “clean” should not be treated unfairly.

Even though discrimination in any shape or form contradicts the principles of the Olympic Movement, the IOC’s decision certainly does put clean Russian athletes on an uneven playing field with athletes from other countries. Having gone through the purgatory of the Olympic qualifications, clean Russian athletes will (a) have to wait for months for the final decisions by the special commission of the IOC, (b) be deprived of the customary support of the NOC of Russia, and (c) most importantly, be denied the right to see their national flag and hear their national anthem.

What is interesting, and perhaps ironic, is the appeal to fairness:

One of the principles of Roman law states: “Nullum crimen, nulla poena sine culpa”. (“No guilt – no punishment”.) The innocent shall not be punished and put down to knees. This approach violates the basic human rights and undermines the trust in law and justice. Athletes dedicate their rather short life in sport for this one moment when they can see their country’s flag in the sky and hear the sound of their national anthem. This is the pinnacle of their glory, their personal conquest of Everest.

This very principle of fairness is what got the Russian sports machine in trouble. The well-documented state-sponsored doping regime in Russia may have very well resulted in the cheater assuming the medal podium. When a doper wins a medal, clean athletes are deprived of the glory of claiming gold, and the potential of financial gains among other things. Clean athletes who finish fourth, fifth or sixth are deprived of receiving any medal and thus public recognition.

I understand Usmanov’s appeal. And he is actually right. However, a little more empathy about how other athletes feel about the Russia doping scandal could have helped.