Russian Figure Skaters Dominate Despite Olympic Ban

The Russian figure skater Evgenia Medvedeva won the short program in Sunday’s team competition. Credit Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
GANGNEUNG, South K

GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Nominally, Russia is barred from the Winter Olympics, but that was not obvious at the figure skating event on Sunday as a cheering section waved the Russian flag and wore ponchos and hockey jerseys in the red, white and blue of the Russian tricolor and shirts and hats that said “Russia in My Heart.”

If there is any enmity toward the Russians for a state-backed system of doping that operated at the 2014 Winter Olympics, it does not appear evident, at least publicly, in this most visible and closely followed of sports at the Games.

The audience clapped politely on Sunday, and there seemed to be no booing, as Russia moved into second place behind Canada after an intermediate round in the team skating competition. The United States was third.

Hey! Sam Manchester here, deputy sports editor. Let me be your personal guide to the Olympic Games in Pyeongchang.

“We felt like at home,” the Russian ice dancer Dmitri Soloviev said. “We felt that every person sitting in each corner of the stadium was yelling the name of Russia.”

Russia won its first medal of these Games on Saturday as Semen Elistratov took a bronze in short-track speedskating and dedicated his podium finish to “all guys that have been excluded from these Games in such a hard and unfair way.”

Figure skating is a much more established and celebrated sport. No country has won more Olympic skating medals than the former Soviet Union and Russia. And no sport other than hockey ratifies Russia’s his

On Monday, Russia is a strong contender for a silver medal after the final round of the team competition. Strictly speaking, any medal would be awarded to a neutral contingent of “Olympic Athletes From Russia.” The five-ringed Olympic flag would be raised, not Russia’s. And the Olympic hymn would be played instead of the Russian national anthem.

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Russian fans cheered for Medvedeva, a gold medal favorite in the women’s singles competition next week.CreditChang W. Lee/The New York Times

But that is widely considered a mere technicality.

“Everyone will know they are Russians if they have a flag or not,” said Rafael Arutyunyan, a Georgian who coached in Moscow for nearly two decades and now coaches the American Olympians Nathan Chen and Adam Rippon.

Russia was barred from these Games as punishment for systematic doping while playing host to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the Black Sea resort. But 169 individual Russian athletes have been permitted to compete after passing what were said to be rigorous drug screenings.

Figure skating has not been immune to the doping scandal. Two prominent Russian skaters, including Ksenia Stolbova, who won silver and gold medals in pairs at the 2014 Games, have been prohibited from these Olympics for reasons that have not been fully explained.

Even those who were permitted to compete here nervously awaited clearance.

“We didn’t know until the day before the Olympics whether we would go or not,” said Ekaterina Bobrova, Soloviev’s ice dance partner. “Of course this was difficult for us.”

Yet there is seemingly little or no ostracism of the Russian skaters here. They compete regularly on an international circuit, are well known and highly regarded and lend competitive rigor to any skating event. Their absence would lessen the outcome in the view of many in the sport.

“If you’re at the Olympics, you want to be with the best people in the world,” said Denise Myers, the coach of the American women’s champion Bradie Tennell.

Stéphane Lambiel, the 2006 Olympic silver medalist from Switzerland who is now a coach, said the Russian skaters are being welcomed. “Yes, for sure they are,” Lambiel said. “They are great athletes, and they are working hard. They’re amazing. I’m the first fan of the Russian school.”

The Canadian Olympic Committee apologized several days ago for an incident in which a Russian coach said a Canadian delegate had verbally abused him in the Olympic Village about the participation of Russian athletes. On Sunday, Michael Slipchuk, the leader of the Canadian skating team, said none of his skating personnel had been involved.

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Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov competing Sunday. Russia was barred from the Games as punishment for systematic doping while playing host to the 2014 Olympics. CreditChang W. Lee/The New York Times

“It definitely wasn’t ours, and if it was, we wouldn’t appreciate it,” Slipchuk said.

Because this is a sport of costumes, not uniforms, Russia’s skaters are not competing like the country’s other athletes in a sporting version of a Scarlet letter — drab neutral outfits that say “Olympic Athlete from Russia.”

And if athletes cannot display the Russian flag, the fans are under no such restriction. More than 100 of them cheered on the Russian skaters on Sunday. About two dozen Russian flags were held aloft.

“I’m proud of my country,” said Nikita Ivanov, 21, a student from St. Petersburg who rooted on the skaters. “We can do a lot in these Olympic Games and win a lot of medals in a lot of sports.”

There was also socializing to be done here at the Russia House — well, officially, the “Sports House” — where one can find a buffet, the costume worn by Adelina Sotnikova to win the 2014 Olympic women’s skating competition and, of course, photographs of President Vladimir V. Putin.

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The Russian ice dancers Dmitri Soloviev and Ekaterina Bobrova. The audience clapped politely on Sunday, and there seemed to be no booing. CreditChang W. Lee/The New York Times

Evgenia Medvedeva, 18, a two-time world skating champion and a gold medal favorite in the women’s singles competition next week, won the short program in Sunday’s team competition.

In December, she helped plead Russia’s case before the International Olympic Committee, which resulted in less than a full ban of the country’s athletes. Asked if she thought her words had made a difference, Medvedeva said on Sunday, “I can’t say so with confidence, but I really tried to do everything I was able to do, and I hope it goes better for our team.”

Still, not all of Russia’s top skaters are here. And their absence has elicited sympathy from the skating community. If there was systematic doping in Russia, said Arutyunyan, the coach of Chen, it was surely orchestrated by officials, not athletes.

“I feel sadness for athletes because they cannot compete for the country they represent, and basically it’s not their fault,” he said.

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