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.

Yuzuru Hanyu and Pooh

It rained Pooh.

And that meant Hanyu was back.

Ever since 2014 Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan went down painfully after injuring his right ankle in October last year, his legions of fans in Japan and around the world have been collectively holding their breath.

 

TOPSHOT-FSKATE-JPN-HANYU
TOPSHOT – This picture taken on November 9, 2017 shows Japanese figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu reacting as he falls after missing his jump during a practice of the Grand Prix of Figure Skating 2017/2018 NHK Trophy in Osaka. Japan Skating Federation announced the Olympic champion Hanyu withdraw from the NHK Trophy after injuring his right ankle. / AFP PHOTO / JIJI PRESS / STR / Japan OUT

 

Would the world’s greatest figure skater be able to return to the ice in time for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. Nobody really knew because he had hidden himself from the probing Japanese media in Toronto, under the guidance of his coaches and Olympic medalists, Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson.

In fact, the current World Champion was not even in South Korea in the first few days of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, and confessed at his press conference on February 14 that he “had a little bit of uncertainty.” For a man of few words, that’s telling.

Yuzuru Hanyu PyeongChang short program 1
Yuzuru Hanyu performs his short program on Friday at the Pyeongchang Olympics at Gangneung Ice Arena. | AFP-JIJI

And yet, as you know now, Hanyu nailed his short routine, scoring the second highest short program score ever – 111.68 points. More importantly, his 4.1 point lead over Javier Fernandez is even greater than his lead when he won gold in Sochi four years earlier.

More significantly, he landed a series of quads, including a a quad toe followed hard upon by a triple toe, all landing on his right leg, after which the NBC color commentator said in mock disbelief, “What injury?”

Hanyu was indeed back….back for more gold. And not just the golden fur of his favorite fuzzy character, Winnie the Pooh.

Marit Bjørgen

Only three women have won ten medals in the Winter Olympics: Russian cross-country skier Raisa Smetanina, Italian cross-country skier Stefania Belmondo, and Norwegian cross-country skier Marit Bjørgen.

But only Bjørgen is sill sking, and she’s gunning to become the most be-medaled female Olympian in history. A four-time Olympian, Bjørgen started her Olympic career at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, where she won silver in the 4x 5km relay for Team Norway. In Turin at the 2006 Winter Olympics, she battled through bronchitis and stomach pains to manage silver in the 10k classical.

And with age, Bjørgen keeps getting better and better. At the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, she increased her distance by winning silver in the 30k classical, and dominated the shorter races by winning gold in in the individual sprint (1.5k), the individual pursuit (15k), and the 4x5k relay. The 2014 Sochi Games also saw her capture another three gold medals. Whether it was a sprint of 1.5 k of a long haul of 30k, Bjørgen emerged victorious.

Since Sochi, Bjørgen had a baby in December 2015, and maybe her competitors thought she would lose a step or two. But apparently Bjørgen has maintained her winning ways, taking four gold medals at the 2017 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Lahti, Finland.

On February 10, 2018, we’ll find out the day after the Opening Ceremonies, in the finals of the Ladies 7.5k + 7.5k Skiathlon, whether Bjørgen makes history with an 11th Olympic medal. I wouldn’t bet against a women who can lift a ship’s anchor.

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.

Pita Taufatofua on skis

You may not remember the name, but you surely remember the body.

When Pita Taufatofua walked into the stadium at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2016 Rio Olympics, carrying the Tongan flag at the head of his delegation. And in the doing, he, as they say, blew up the internet.

The taekwando competitor was dressed in native Tongan costume, from the waist down. From the waist up, Taufatofua was shirtless, his muscular upper body slick and shiny with oil. Men stared and women swooned the world over. Jenna Bush, the daughter of President George W. Bush, was one of three NBC anchorwomen filmed rubbing oil over the arms and chest of the Australian born native of Brisbane.

As a fighter, Taufatofua lost his first match in the heavyweight competition at Rio, and that was it.

But once bit by the Olympic bug, it’s hard for some people to walk away. So Taufatofua did the unthinkable, and found a way into the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. And while there will be a taekwondo demonstration team from North Korea, this Tongan will be competing in cross-country skiing. That’s amazing since he didn’t start skiing until 2017.

As you can guess, Taufatofua has not been around snow all that much, but he caught a break when the International Ski Federation changed their eligibility rules allowing skiiers to employ points gained in roller skiing competitions (more commonly organized in warm-weather countries).

As explained in this article, Taufatofua had to work hard to learn a new discipline and spend a lot of money to boot. He formed a ragtag team of experts who coached him in his new discipline, moved to Austria to get his training on snow, and worked to make the minimum time to make the Olympics on the Tongan national team.

“I’m the brokest I’ve been in my life,” he said. But he’s back in the Games.

Can’t Miss Prediction: He won’t go shirtless in the PyeongChang Olympics Opening Ceremony.

Pita Taufatofua on skis 2

1000 days in a row

Every day.

He ran every day for at least a mile from December 20, 1964 to January 30, 2017.

That’s 52 years and 39 days straight!

Ron Hill, of Accrington, Lancashire, is a three-time Olympian, who finished 19th in the marathon at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and is without a doubt, my patron saint of consistency.

So, I state with some humility that today, Wednesday, January 24, 2018, with this post, I have published an original article on The Olympians for the 1,000th day in a row.

When I started this blog on May 1, 2015, as a kind-of first draft of my book on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, I had no intent of publishing a post a day. But alas, one day led to the next, and so on and so on….

I will continue the streak for a while, but I will no longer fret about skipping a day, or two or three. What little time I have for writing on the weekend will eventually shift to time writing the book on ’64, the raison d’etre of this blog.

Now it’s time to do the real writing. Gotta start moving faster. 2020 is around the corner.

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