Russian wins ice hockey gold
China Xinhua News

 

It went, miraculously, to overtime.

No one thought it would. No one believed the Germans, 66:1 bet to win gold in PyeongChang, would stay competitive with the Russian men in the ice hockey finals. In the end, in sudden-death overtime, Russian forward Kirill Kaprizov took a pass from Nikita Gusev and blasted a shot into the net to end Germany’s incredible run, and take the game 4-3.

Team OAR won gold. Team Germany won silver….a most unexpected silver.

After losing their first two games in the tournament, Team Germany started winning, and then defeated Sweden in overtime 4-3, and Canada 4-3 in the semifinals, setting up their improbable match against the Olympic Athletes of Russia (OAR). Germany had never been to a finals before, and were happily aware that a silver medal was still all gravy.

But they realized early on, they had a chance for gold. At 16:44 of the third period, Jonas Muller took a pass from Yasin Ehliz, held the puck looking for an opening, and then rocketed a shot into the net. Germany led 3-2. All they had to do was hold on for a little over 3 minutes to achieve their first ever gold medal.

Thirty seconds later, Russia got called for a penalty. Could it really be that easy? Did they really believe in miracles?

With only a minute 11 seconds left in the game, the Russian goalie, Vasili Koshechkin, went to the bench. Players on the ice were five on five, but the Russian net was empty. Then, at a most inopportune time, the Germans had a brain cramp. As they approached the Russian blue line, the Germans dumped the puck, essentially handing the puck back to the Russians. They could have passed it back towards their own zone, and killed off more precious seconds, but instead, the Germans gave up control of the puck to the Russians.

And they took advantage.

The Russians carried it into the German zone, and you could feel an opportunity building. The puck came loose to the left of the German goalie, and the Russian forward, Gusev swatted at the puck, somehow knocking in a shorthanded goal, with only 55 seconds left in the game to tie the match.

As NBC analyst Mike Milbury intoned, “Just when you thought it was destiny for Germany….”

When the game goes to overtime, they play four on four, which is thought to be an advantage for the better skating, better passing team. That would be the Russians. And while Team OAR did not dominate, they made the great passes when they needed, the final snap pass to Kaprizov putting an end to an incredible ice hockey finals.

So for a second time in the 2018 PyeongChang Olympiad, we saw the raising of the Olympic Flag in place of the Russian flag, and the Olympic anthem playing in place of the Russian anthem.

But you could sense that the crowd and the players were singing a different song.

The Russians didn’t care. They won one of the most incredible Olympic ice hockey finals ever. And they were the champions.

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Germany celebrates victory over Canada
German players celebrate their Olympic men’s hockey semifinal win over Canada on Feb. 23. Bruce Bennett / Getty Images

When the USA upset the Soviet Union in the semi-finals of the men’s ice hockey tournament at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, it was dubbed “The Miracle on Ice”.

Maybe we can call the 2018 version “Das Wunder auf Eis”.

Germany shocked Canada 4-3 on Friday, February 23 at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. It was the first time that Team Canada, both men and women, failed to win gold in an Olympiad since 1998.

“Crazy, just crazy,” said German coach, Marco Sturm. “It’s unbelievable, what the team achieved. We had never before been in a situation in which we had been under positive pressure before. We had to stay cool. This is unique. The lads need to savor it.”

Equally shocked were Canadians. Here’s the first line of The Vancouver Sun’s article, “Dark Day for Canadian Hockey.”

The worst possible outcome for an Olympic team without NHL players landed like a spear to the gut in an embarrassing night for Canadian hockey Friday at the Gangneung Hockey Arena.

Canada has won gold in ice hockey three of the last four Winter Olympics. In the past 29 meetings between the two nations, Germany had won only once, and had lost the previous 11 matches. Ice hockey is essentially Canada’s national pastime, and there are over 630,000 registered hockey players in that country. By contrast, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation, there are only some 20,600 registered hockey players in Germany.

This was a huge upset.

As German defenseman, Christian Ehrhoff, said in his interview with Pierre McGuire of NBC, “It’s unbelievable. I am out of words. Right now, it’s such a huge day for German hockey. So proud right now.”

“Is it fair to say this is the German 1980?” asked McGuire.

“I can agree with that,” replied Ehrhoff. “No one really had us on the list. For us we’re just living a dream, day by day right now. The ride continues. It’s just amazing. Everybody is already so proud of us already. Everything that’s coming now, it’s just a bonus. For us to guarantee ourselves a medal, it’s….wow.”

Team Germany celebrate victory over Team Canada 2
German players celebrate their semifinal win over Canada on Feb. 23. Brendan Smalowski / AFP / Getty Images

Germany was an overwhelming underdog, but they took advantage. And in hindsight, the circumstances that brought the men’s hockey players to the PyeongChang, may have worked in Germany’s favor.

The second biggest hockey league in the world is the KHL, and the bulk of the Russian squad is made of KHL players, which allowed their players to participate. That is probably a good reason why the Olympic Athletes of Russia (OAR) squad is in the finals of the men’s ice hockey championship.

The NHL, the biggest and best professional hockey league in the world, forbade their players from participating in the Olympics this year. That heavily impacted most of the other competitive hockey nations, particularly those from North American and Scandinavia. Germany, which is far from being considered an ice hockey power, which did not even qualify at the Sochi Olympics, only had 10 Germans in the NHL. So, as this article states, perhaps “the absence of the NHLers has not hurt the Germans as much as most.”

A lot of credit is given to the German coach for raising the level of play of the German team. Sturm, who played nearly 1,000 games in the NHL over 14 seasons with 6 teams, took over the German national team in 2015. According to this DW article, written after Germany upset #1 seed, Sweden (4-3), the German players have responded well to the retired NHLer who had lived in the States the previous 20 years. As they began to win, they began to attract more and better players, and come together as a team.

Compared to many of the teams that had previously relied on NHL players, like the Canadian and American squads that came together only weeks before, the German players, on the whole, have played together for years leading up to PyeongChang.

The Canadian team members were announced on January 11, a little less than a month before the start of the PyeongChang Olympiad, so there was little chance for the team to gel. Even though Team Canada had some momentum into the match with Germany, having shut out both Korea and Finland, anything can happen in short tournaments. Even miracles.

Ice hockey coaches are trained to be emotionless when talking about their teams, unmoving anchors in the shifting winds of a storm, particularly before their teams have won it all. But when McGuire ended an interview of Coach Sturm, saying, “We’re going to see you on Sunday afternoon in a gold medal game. Marco Sturm, Congratulations,” Sturm’s face exploded in glee, and he wrapped his arm around McGuire in a big hug, giggling like a schoolboy who just pulled off the greatest practical joke of all time on his teacher.

Germany is no joke. They play the Russians for gold.

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.

Mens 1500m short skate finals 10

Hwang Daeheon and Lim Hyo-jun lined up in the center positions 3 and 4 in the midst of a huge finals group of nine skaters. With so many skaters jockeying for a podium finish, you knew a tumble or two was coming in this sport of short track speed skating, where margins are razor thin.

It’s Saturday, February 10, 2018, the day after the Opening Ceremonies of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics and I’m in attendance at the Gaengneung Ice Arena for the women’s 500-meter, women’s 3000-meter relay qualifiers, as well as the men’s 1500-meter qualifiers and finals. The anticipation of a South Korean winning gold was so great that you may not have noticed that US Vice President Mike Pence was in the house. But you couldn’t miss the North Korean cheering squad, a red mass of continuous cheering and singing that electrified the arena.

The 1500-meter race takes 13.5 laps, and over 2 minutes. That’s a long distance for short track, so the nine skaters start kind of leisurely. But a few laps in, the intensity grows. The Dutch skater and 28-year-old short track veteran, Sjinkie Knegt, takes the lead.

At the tenth lap, 21-year-old Lim takes control. He slides in front of his elder teammate and world #1, Hwang, and a lap later he jumps inside the leader, Knegt, and takes the lead. At that very moment, it appears that Hwang is clipped from behind by French skater Thibaut Fauconnet, as he and the French skater take a hard tumble into the corner. One Korean down, but one Korean up.

With two laps to go, the question is, can Lim hold the lead. You only need to wait seconds to find out in short track. Lim crosses the finish line and raises his arms in victory just ahead of Knegt, setting a new Olympic Record at 2:10.485. After enduring numerous leg injuries and seven surgeries during years of training, first as a swimmer and then a skater, on this day, Lim lept over his higher ranked teammate, Hwang, into the South Korean pantheon of champions.

As an aside, the bronze medalist of the men’s 1500-meter short track finals was Semen Elistratov, a member of the OAR, aka The Olympic Athletes of Russia, and the first OAR medal of the Games.

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

US Vice President Mike Pence was gone. The North Korean cheerleading squad had departed. After all, the start of the unified Korean women’s team ice hockey match was about to start nearby, and that was the geo-political moment of the night. As a consequence, they missed the first gold medal awarded to the host country at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, and it was Lim Hyo-jun.

To be honest, I’m rooting for the USA and Japan when I can, but when you’re in an arena and the hometown is going crazy, you can’t help but get swept up when you’re in a crowd of thousands of strangers united in their unadulterated joy.

Great start to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics!

Lim accepts gold medal

All pictures/videos taken by the author.

Tonga enters the Stadium
Pita Taufatofua of Tonga enters shirtless…again.

Definitely, the biggest question of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics was not whether more people would be added to the OAR team, or whether protests would break out in the middle of these South Korean Games, or how the Olympic cauldron would be lit.

The biggest question was certainly – Would Pita Taufatofua, the taekwando-cross-country skier, enter the Stadium shirtless, as he did to universal glee at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics.

The Tongan did not disappoint. Fortunately, the temperature was only -2 degrees Centigrade, far below predictions of -15, so the oil-slathered Taufatofua could milk the crowd for ecstatic squeals of delight.

But there were cheers a-plenty during the march of the nations.

Nations with large teams like Norway, Germany, the UK and Canada got cheers, as did the nations with small teams, like Ghana, Singapore and particularly Tonga.

Olympic Athletes from Russia enter the Stadium
Olympic Athletes from Russia enter the Stadium

The intriguing cheers came with the OAR crashed the house. Although it wasn’t finalized until the last day, 169 Olympic Athletes from Russia were allowed to participate in the Winter Olympics. They marched under the Olympic flag, and any medals won will not count in the overall Russia medal count.

The largest team with 244 athletes, the USA entered the Stadium at a half run, and bounced along to the PSY hit song from 2010, Gangnam Style.

But the biggest cheers were heard for the hometown favorites, the 145 members of the United Korean Team where a North and South Korean held the blue–on-white unification flag together as they entered the Stadium to tremendous applause.

 

All photos and videos taken by the author.

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.