Russian (oops, OAR) figure skaters still a name brand at Olympics

  Russian fans at the team figure skating event.

Russian fans at the team figure skating event.

GANGNEUNG, South Korea -- In 2014, at the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, the debut of a team event in Olympic figure skating turned into an intensely nationalist celebration for a host country that had contributed a half-century of relentless brilliance to the sport.

It was capped appropriately when an elfin 15-year-old, Julia Lipnitskaia, put on a Russian team baseball cap someone had thrown on the ice after her second straight dazzling performance clinched the gold medal. It was Russia's first gold of its first Winter Olympics.

Vladimir Putin was in the Iceberg Palace that night, the Russian president beaming like a proud papa. And, while congratulating his winners, Putin made an appropriately parental gesture, patting the littlest member of the group, Lipnitskaia, on the head.

The fans screamed "Yu-li-ya!" and "Ross-eee-yah!" Of the atmosphere, Lipnitskaia said, "There wasn't any silence for a single second."

Nothing better represented the Russian collective will and national pride Putin has strived to restore than a triumph in a team competition.

That 2014 Olympic pride has been battered since.

Four years later, Lipnitskaia is gone from the sport, a victim of eating disorders that grew out of the intense pressure she felt to replicate her 2014 success.

And Russia is gone from the Olympics, at least in name and official image, having been censured by the International Olympic Committee for a massive doping scandal that included a nefariously creative scheme for sample tampering at the Sochi Games.

Its athletes are in PyeongChang as OAR, "Olympic Athletes from Russia," competing under the Olympic flag. Their medals will be marked by the raising of that five-ringed flag. Their triumphs will be saluted by the playing of the anodyne Olympic hymn rather than the stirring Russian national anthem. Their team's uniform jackets are a solid color, white or light gray, rather than the country's red, white and blue national colors.

And yet...

"I am really happy we have a chance to compete here," Evgenia Medvedeva said after winning the ladies team event short program Sunday with a world-record score of 81.06.

The medal the Russians earn in the team event is unlikely to be another gold as Canada has a seemingly insurmountable six-point lead over OAR going into Monday's final events: the men's, ladies and ice dance free programs.

But Russia had faced the chilling prospect of a complete ban from these Winter Olympics, a punishment called for by many athletes and national anti-doping agencies around the world.

Medvedeva, 18, the two-time reigning world champion, was part of the Russian delegation that went to the IOC's Swiss headquarters in early December to plead the country's case for participation in South Korea.

"I can't say confidently what I said (made a difference)," Medvedeva said. "I really tried to do everything I was able to do, to hope (the decision) goes better for our team."

IOC President Thomas Bach had contended all along that each athlete's right to individual due process outweighed the collective systemic guilt. That argument won the day, and the IOC decided Russian participation in the Winter Games as neutrals on an invitation-only, athlete-by-athlete basis.

"I feel sadness for the athletes because they cannot compete for the country they represent, and I know it is not their fault," said U.S. coach Rafael Arutunian, who was schooled as an athlete and coach in the old Soviet sports system.

The sanctions also included bans of Russian athletes with doping violations in the Sochi affair and IOC denial of invitations to compete for several others with no known anti-doping transgression, including pairs skater Ksenia Stolbova and ice dancer Ivan Bukin.

"This is a very sad story for us, because we are very good friends with him," Russian ice dancer Ekaterina Bobrova said of Bukin's case. "We still don't understand."

No reason has been given publicly for the exclusion of Stolbova and Bukin.

"I know Bukin's father (Andrei)," Arutunian said. "I feel for him. He is an Olympic champion, and he was putting everything into raising his son to participate in the Olympics, and then you get a letter saying he is not allowed to compete with, I have heard, no explanation."

Stolbova and partner Fedor Klimov were team gold medalists and pairs silver medalists in Sochi. Nikita Mozer, who works with Stolbova and Klimov in a coaching team headed by his mother, Nina, said, "We are waiting for an explanation. It is very weird."

Yulia Isinbayeva, the Olympic pole vault champion and IOC member, said in an Instagram post Saturday the sanctions her country's athletes are living with at the 2018 Olympics have poked the Russian bear.

"Russians are angry, and anger becomes invincibility," she wrote.

Latvian singles skater Diana Nikitina, whose roots are Russian, said her mother, Solvita, found it hard to comprehend that country's athletes being represented by the Olympic flag.

"She told me, 'Can you imagine Russians going without their flag?'" Nikitina said

Bobrova, who finished third in Sunday's short dance with partner Dmitri Soloviev, said the shock of an "identity crisis" for the Russian athletes had worn off because the IOC's decision on that issue came Dec. 5.

"Now it's OK, because we already understood this and prepared for it," Bobrova said.

Bobrova said the hard part was the lingering uncertainty of which Russian athletes would get invitations. That was not resolved until the last week of January.

The lack of official recognition hardly prevents Russians from being seen as who they are, especially by their fans in South Korea. During the Friday and Sunday sessions of the team event, a group of about 100 people in the upper deck of Gangneung Ice Arena brought Russian flags and wore Russian flag ponchos. Some aligned themselves to have their red shirts spell out "Russia In My Heart."

"I heard so many words of support for our team," Medvedeva said. "I was really happy to hear it."

One of the fans, Natalia Loboda of Moscow, felt a sense of obligation to give that support.

"The main thing is that our sport guys are here," Loboda said. "We like them, we are fans of them so much. That's why we decided to come here: to see them, to give part of our spirit to them because we hope that they will do their best.

"Russians are very, very energetic people. We have big hearts."

Unlike in Sochi, where the home crowds frequently were dismissive or silent about skaters from other countries, these Russian fans were applauding everyone. And there was no negative reaction toward the Russians from the other spectators in Gangneung.

The idea of neutrality for the Russian athletes was far-fetched to begin with.

"You know how we all look like we're Russians?" Mozer said. "Everyone knows how we look and who we are. 'Olympic Athletes from Russia,' it's just bureaucracy on paper.

"Of course, they will fight for Russia and themselves. We are all very patriotic."

The issue of self and country is complicated in figure skating, especially since there was no team competition until four years ago.

"Before it's for your country, it's for yourself," said Stéphane Lambiel of Switzerland, the 2006 Olympic silver medalist and Nikitina's coach.

"When you are out there, you are out there for yourself," he continued. "You are fighting for your life, you are fighting for your performance. And that's the most important. I was on the podium at the Olympics, and I was so proud to see my flag going up. It's amazing. I'm fighting also for my team and for my country. But first, you fight for yourself."

There are some people upset that any Russian athletes have been allowed to compete at these Winter Olympics. While figure skating largely has been immune from doping problems, the ability to outwit testers through chemistry or chicanery means it is hard for any athlete to be beyond reproach.

But Olympic figure skating without Russians would be like borscht without beets or Red Square without the Kremlin. A lot of medals would get real or perceived asterisks.

"If you're at the Olympics, you want to be with the best people in the world," said Denise Myers, coach of U.S. champion Bradie Tennell, who finished fifth in the team ladies short program.

Mike Slipchuk, high performance director of Skate Canada, declined to comment on whether the Russian skaters should be here ("That's out of our control"), but he was glad to avoid an asterisk situation.

"It would be different (without the Russians)," Slipchuk said. "Thank goodness it isn't. It makes the competition better. And they're part of our figure skating family."

(This article originally appeared on icenetwork.)