GANGNEUNG, South Korea –From the packed rows of Section G1 here at the Gangneung Ice Arena, one of the most familiar chants of Winter Olympics past repeatedly rang out Sunday.
Officially, Russia isn’t here. The nation was banned by the International Olympic Committee in response to a wild, systematic doping and sample tampering operation at the 2014 Sochi Games that it hosted.
The IOC, however, did allow 168 Russian athletes to compete here. They were freed because there wasn’t credible-enough proof they individually doped. That was occasionally true because the samples were already destroyed by the Russians.
Regardless, it has created a bizarre and, at times, unbelievable mess, where there technically are no Russian Olympians. Yet everywhere you look, there’s what the IOC has dubbed “Olympic Athletes from Russia” competing with their usual brilliance.
Here at the team figure-skating event, the Olympic Athletes from Russia are in second place behind Canada and ahead of the United States going into Monday’s medal round.
The Olympic Athletes from Russia were, however, the unquestioned No. 1 in fan support here, where hundreds of their countrymen donned Russian flags, Russian colors and even T-shirts with a particular anti-IOC statement: “Russia In My Heart.”
“Huge support,” said Russian ice dancer Ekaterina Bobrova. “Our citizens, you could see them in different spots of the stadium, entire slots, they were signing their songs in Russian, waving flags. We felt as if we were at home.”
If the IOC meant to humiliate Russia, it’s mostly backfired, at least here on the ground. Instead, the Russians are here – and impossible to ignore – aiming instead to humiliate the IOC one song, one chant, one winning performance at a time.
“You can stop Russia from being here, but you can’t stop the Russians from being here,” said Evgeni Kichigin, who traveled to the Games from St. Petersburg and wore a Russian flag as a shirt on Sunday.
All over the first couple days of the Games, Russia has punched back – and shown the folly of the IOC expecting a split verdict (no Russia, lots of Olympic Athletes from Russia) to actually work. The IOC should have known it’s either one or the other. Russia is here or it’s not.
Instead, you get scenes like Sunday, entire sections of the stadium waving flags and chanting pro-Russia slogans. A large group organized themselves across three rows, wearing printed T-shirts to spell out “Russia in My Heart,” so no one could miss it. The phrase adorns stickers, signs and has become a social media rallying cry for those who didn’t come but are cheering on from back home. Other Russians walk around and put a finger to their lips in a mocking “be quiet” sign, like their presence is all a secret.
If you understood Russians, this was predictable.
Regardless of the overwhelming facts of the case, when backed into a corner, Russia was going to come out swinging. It was never going to quietly accept a full ban from the Winter Games. If you count its various itineration (Soviet Union, Unified Team, Russia), it entered these games with more medals (336) and more golds (134) than any other country.
“When they first announced they wouldn’t let us do what usually we do, I had the impression that when we come to the Olympics the support will be twice as much as usual,” Bobrova said.
The Olympic Athletes from Russia have coaches and support staff, many of whom usually work for the Russian Olympic Committee, which adds to the farce. Their uniform colors are the familiar red, white and blue, just slightly different shades from the official Russian colors. While they marched into the games under an Olympic flag, the IOC has already said they may lift the ban on the final day and allow the Russian flag to fly at Closing Ceremonies.
If an Olympic Athlete from Russia wins gold, the IOC won’t play the Russian national anthem from the medal podium.
Russian fans said it won’t matter. They’ll sing it so loud no one will be able to miss a word in a scene that promises to be even more attention-grabbing than usual.
It’ll be one IOC humbling after the next.
“We need to be here now,” said Roman Bykov, of Moscow. “We have to support our athletes and our country. Our sportsman are heroes to just compete in this situation. This is even more difficult.”
Many Russians disagree with the IOC verdict. This despite admissions from numerous individuals who carried out the scheme. It included not just doping, but constructing an entire building next to the Sochi testing lab so that after-hours dirty samples could be slipped out and clean ones slipped in via a hole in the wall. After the scandal was uncovered, two high-level authorities who were said to be involved mysteriously turned up dead.
Russian media has taken the ruling as fake news and evidence of the world being anti-Russian.
No matter the facts, fans argue, when you consider the history of performance-enhancing drugs in just about every other nation, who cares? Why punish Russia so harshly?
“State-sponsored system?” said Bykov as he stood by his friend, Dmitrii Burkurov, who nodded in agreement. “We don’t believe.”
What they believe is the IOC’s corruption. That and the heart of the Russian athletes. So here they are, full of Russian pride, singing Russian songs, wearing as much Russian gear as they can drape over their frames.
They’re making a mockery of the weak-kneed IOC and turning the Olympics, even conservative figure skating, into a Russian pep rally.
“It’s great,” pairs skater Alexander Enbert said with a smile.
“Absolutely huge,” Bobrova, the ice dancer, echoed.
And just wait until men’s hockey takes the ice.