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.

Defector shot crossing DMZ
Video footage of Defector Shot While Crossing border

Only months before the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, two North Korean soldiers crossed the highly secure demilitarized zone (DMZ) that maintains the nervous peace between South and North. That makes for a total of 4 soldier defections in 2017, compared with two over the previous four years.

On December 21, 2017 a North Korean soldier took advantage of a very thick fog to walk across the border.

More dramatically, on November 13, 2017, a soldier raced to the border in a jeep. Just prior to the border, the defector’s jeep got stuck in a grassy area, forcing the soldier to get out and run, just as North Korean soldiers with rifles appear on foot, firing at the 19-year old defector, and into South Korea. Shot four times but falling in South Korea territory, the defector was dragged to safety by South Korean soldiers.

 

Clearly, it is very hard to cross the DMZ from North into South. More importantly, only soldiers have access to the North-South border areas, so the general population has very little chance to cross there.

The majority of defectors from North Korea go north to China or Russia. Since 1953 and the end of the Korean War, it is estimated that anywhere from 100- to 300,000 North Koreans have defected overall. Russia has about 10,000, many who have escaped the logging camps in North Korea. China may have as many as 30- to 50,000 North Koreans blending into Chinese society. The majority of those defectors are women, who marry Chinese men, settling into a quiet life in order to avoid being arrested by authorities and deported back to likely punishment in North Korea.

Thousands of others have made the journey down to the southern part of China where they make their way Laos and Thailand, or through Mongolia, assuming that they can avoid the clutches of Chinese authorities ready to send them back.

North Korean boat washes up in Akita
Eight bodies found as second suspected North Korean boat washes up in Akita Prefecture

Japan has also been a destination since the late 1980s. North Koreans make their journey over 400 miles across the Sea of Japan to Aomori, Fukui or the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa. On November 27, 2017, a wooden boat in poor condition washed up on the shore of Akita, in the northern part of Japan. Eight bodies, thought to be North Korean defectors, were found inside the boat. Only the week before, eight men from North Korea arrived on Japanese soil by boat, alive. In fact, in 2017, 44 boats from North Korea have made it to Japan this year.

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.

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.

Rio Medals Table sans Russia

A little less than two weeks prior to the start of the 2016 Rio Olympics, the IOC made a fateful decision. A report from the World Anti-Doping Agency recommended that all Russian athletes be banned from international competition, including the Olympic Summer Games. The IOC, which had the final say, chose to defer judgment on eligibility for Olympic participation to the various international sports federations. While the international track and field organization, IAAF, had decided much earlier to ban the entire Russian track and field team, many other federations chose to allow the Russians to compete. In the end, 278 Russians were cleared, while 111 were ruled ineligible.

At the end of the Olympic Summer Games on August 21, Russia had tallied the fourth highest number of gold medals (19) and total medals (56), behind the USA, China and Great Britain. Russia finished ahead of Germany, France and Japan.

But what would have happened if all Russian athletes were banned from the Rio Games as WADA had recommended?

  1. Would the medal tables have changed significantly?
  2. Would any individual or team have won for their country a medal in a specific category for the first time?
  3. Would any nation have won its first medal of any kind, ever?

Would the medal tables have changed significantly? The answer to the first question is no. if the Russians had to give back all of their 56 medals, around 30 nations would be getting additional medals. America could have added two medals but they were already 50 medals ahead of China. China was actually impacted the most by Russia’s presence, as they could have had as many as another 7 bronze medals without the Russians in the mix. But that would still have left them far behind the US in the overall medal race.

Italy may have felt the pain considerably. Like the Chinese, they lost out potentially on as many as 7 bronze medals in a wide variety of sporting areas. Azerbaijan potentially lost out on 5 bronze medals, if not for the Russians.

Of course, these are guestimates I’ve made based on what individuals or teams came in fourth. Complicating matters, in sports like judo or wrestling or boxing you have at least two people each tied for third and fourth. In the case of the men’s lightweight boxing tournament, there were four people who finished just below one of the bronze medalists, a Russian. Who knows who would have actually gotten the bronze without Vitaly Dunaytsev in Rio?

Dipa Karmaker
India’s first Olympic gymnast, Dipa Karmaker
Would any nation have won its first medal in a specific category? The answer to the second question is yes. Dipa Karmaker is a female gymnast from India, and her score of 15.966 in the individual vault competition left her 0.15 points behind Giulia Steingruber of Switzerland. If silver medalist, Maria Paseka of Russia, had her medal revoked, Steingruber, Switzerland’s first gymnast to win a medal of any kind, would be awarded a silver medal. Her bronze medal would go to Karmaker, who is the first ever Indian to compete as a gymnast in the Olympics, and could possibly have been the first to win a gymnastics medal if the Russians were not allowed to compete.

Would any nation have won its first medal of any kind, ever? The answer to the third question is yes: two countries could have finally broken the high-performance glass ceiling with a bronze medal.

If not for Russia, Cameroon could have taken home a bronze in women’s freestyle wrestling (75kg). Annabelle Ali, Cameroon’s flag bearer in the 2012 Games, tied with Vasilisa Marzaliuk of Belarus one notch below the Russian Ekaterina Bukina.

Additionally, Mauritius could have experienced its first medal. Kennedy St Pierre was one of four heavyweight boxers to place fifth at Rio. If Evgeny Tishchenko were not in Rio, a favored boxer would have been out of the competition. Who knows who would have beaten whom? Out of 8 quarterfinalists, four get medals, so St Pierre’s chances would have increased significantly if the Russian was not in the ring. Yes, you can say that for the other competitors, but for Mauritius, it would have been party time if St Pierre brought home the bronze.

Kennedy St-Pierre
Mauritius’ Kennedy St-Pierre beat Algeria’s Chouaib Bouloudinats
Conlan landing a right on Nikitin
Michael Conlan landing a right on Vladimir Nikitin.

As Russian boxer Vladimir Nikitin and Irish boxer Michael Conlan prepared for the start of the quarterfinal bantamweight bout at the Rio Olympics, the announcers set the stage with perceptive foreshadowing.

“Let’s hope this is a fair decision. We’ve had some absolutely shocking decisions, including last night in the world’s heavyweight final. All we ask is that Michael Conlan is judged fairly.”

“Nikitin got a lucky decision against Chatchai Butdee from Thailand in his last fight. A lot of observers here in the press gantry couldn’t believe he won the fight.”

Yes, the announcers on the broadcast feed I watched were Irish.

In the first round, Conlan, in red, was quick, aggressive going both to the body and the head. Nikitin, in blue, appeared to me to land several successful blows to Conlan’s head. Prior to that Conlan was getting a few shots to the left side of Nikitin’s head, and you could see a welt getting redder on Nikitin’s close-cropped scalp. Apparently that had been opened up in the previous bout with the Thai boxer. At one point, the judge stopped the fight to wipe blood off of Conlan, but that was probably Nikitin’s blood.

In the waning seconds of the first round, the Russian appeared to me to land successive blows to Conlan’s head – six or seven maybe, to which Conlan replied with a right. The announcer described it this way: “Attempts from Nikitin not really scoring, and Conlan comes across with a right and another.” The “another” was blocked by Niktin’s glove in my view.

As the round ended, the announcer said, “It’ll be very interesting to see what the judges are scoring. Will they be looking for the aggression or will they be looking for the boxing?” Presumably the announcer meant that Nikitin was making a show of being an aggressor, while Conlan was boxing his way to a first round edge. “I hope the judges are seeing a fair fight here,” the announcer said, almost anticipating the judges to score it in Nikitin’s favor.

When the 1st round scores came up, all three judges had Round One for Nikitin 10-9. The announcers were incredulous. “10-9 for Nikitin! What! What are they watching? What are they watching?”

“We saw this last night with Tishchenko.”

“Yeah, another Russian boxer!”

Nikitin lands on Conlan

In the second round, Conlan appeared to be taking the fight to Nikitin, landing far more blows than the Russian. With a minute left in the of the round, the fight was stopped and blood was cleared from Conlan’s nose and Nikitin’s head. When the fight resumed, they came out swinging. And again the fight was stopped to clean up the side of Nikitin’s head. But when they came back out, you could see that Conlan had opened up a new wound as blood streamed from the area of Nikitin’s left eyebrow.

“He is beating off Vladimir Nikitin here. And if the judges don’t see that, you just give up for amateur boxing, because this is absolutely brilliant by Michael Conlan.”

At this stage, again with my untrained eyes, I would have to say Conlan won the second round. He landed more blows, and there were times when Niktitin looked like he was flailing in the wind. I wouldn’t say Conlan won overwhelmingly, but solidly yes.

The judges agreed, each giving the second round to Conlan 10-9. Two-thirds of the way through, the two boxers were tied – even steven.

Conlan starts off the third round landing five or six punches as Nikitin kept his blue gloves up around his face, where they had been throughout the entire match.

It’s as if the announcers were trying to contain their own anxiety and will Conlan to victory for Ireland, as it turns out, the last boxing hope for Ireland in the Olympics.

“He’s the last boxer left standing, arguably the best boxer on this Irish team, the most talented. Michael Conlan, boxing for a place in the semi finals.”

“I’m not sure what I’m seeing him do here. He’s boxing lovely. He’s making Nikitin miss, but he did this in the first round and it all went against him.”

But in the second half of the final round, the two boxers stood toe to toe, exchanging punches, although to my eyes, Conlan was more aggressive, and landed more frequently. Towards the end, you can see both fighters were exhausted, both landing punches here and there, but no one really establishing any semblance of dominance.

As they lined up with the referee, Conlan was looking confident, raising his hand as the voice intoned that the victory was unanimous.

“It has to be Conlan. Surely. Surely.”

Nikitin defeats Conlan

As soon as the announcer said, “In the blue corner…” Nikitin dropped to his knees and looked up to the sky in joy. As the referee, still holding the arms of both boxers, twirled them around 360 degrees to display the winner to the entire audience, Conlan probably felt he was being dragged around like a rag doll. The judges from Brazil, Sri Lanka and Poland all scored Nikitin ahead 29-28, which meant that all three judges scored round 3 10-9 in favor of Nikitin.

“It’s another shocker,” said the announcer.

Was it? OK, I’d give Conlan the edge in round 3, and I believe he should have advanced. But I’m not a boxing expert. I’m only a casual fan of the sport. I grew up adoring Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, admiring their skill, determination and confidence as they ruled as champions. And when I think of Olympic boxing matches absolutely stolen, the benchmark to me is superstar Roy Jones Jr, when he clearly won his bout with Korean Park Si-hun in the light middleweight gold medal match at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, although the judges saw it differently, awarding gold to the Korean.

But may be I’m in the minority. After the decision, Conlan blew up in front of the press. Raising a nasty finger to boxing officials, shouting, “They’re f&@%ing cheats. They’re known to be cheats. Amateur boxing stinks from the core right to the top.”

Vladimir Nikitin Victorious

Conlan was referring to officials from AIBA (The International Boxing Association), who a day later recognized issues within their judges and referees. In a statement released soon after the Nikitin-Conlan fight, AIBA released this statement:

IOC and Russian flags

The IOC approved the eligibility of 271 Russian athletes out of 389 originally selected. That’s 70% of the original roster.

The quote of the Games so far comes from the president of the Russian Olympic Committee, Alexander Zhukov, who remarked that Russian will have “the cleanest team” at the Games.

Go here for more details.