The IOC tried to punish Russia for alleged state-sponsored doping by taking away its flag and anthem. But when the OARs won gold in ice hockey at the 2018 Winter Games, the strange name and Olympic flag fooled nobody, writes DW’s Chuck Penfold.
A lot of the talk before the 2018 Winter Olympic Games concerned two things. First, there was much debate about the wisdom of letting 168 Russian athletes compete despite the fact that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had suspended their country over evidence of state-sponsored doping contained in a World Anti-Doping Agency report.
Then there was the consternation among ice hockey fans about the fact that for the first time since Lillehammer in 1994, the world’s top league, the National Hockey League (NHL) didn’t shut down for a few days to allow its players to participate in the Winter Games.
So what a strange sight it was to watch the ceremony in which the “Olympic Athletes from Russia” (OAR) were awarded their country’s first gold medal since 1992, when, not long after the demise of the Soviet Union, players from six former Soviet republics had played under that same Olympic flag as the “United Team”.
Here they were again, gold medals around their necks listening not to the Russian, but the Olympic anthem, and watching the Olympic, not the Russian flag being raised to the rafters. Here they were in Pyeongchang, having finally achieved their goal after 26 years of trying – yet they were deprived of both anthem and flag.
Did they care? Not at all, at least if the smiles on their faces as they posed for their gold-medal-winning photo were anything to go by.
After all, everybody knew who they were. The IOC fooled nobody by tacking on an “Olympic Athlete from” onto “Russia”.
Come to think of it, their red and white jerseys were reminiscent of the ones the “Big Red Machine” wore in their glory days, when they won six out of seven ice hockey gold medals between 1964 and 1988. All that was missing was the “CCCP” on the front of the jersey. And on the ice, they were almost as dominant as those old Soviet teams. After losing the opener to Slovakia, the “OARs” went on to win each of their next five games, outscoring their opponents 25-6.
Until the last few days they would have hoped to be able to march behind their real flag, the Russian tricolor, in the closing ceremony, as had been alluded to by the IOC, which thought up the crazy compromise of a neutral flag, with the word “Russia” in the team name in the first place. Stern punishment for those behind Russia’s alleged state-doping system? Hardly!
Even though the IOC’s flag was raised for the gold medalists, nobody was in any doubt about who these champions were. It must have annoyed the Russians though, and the IOC seemed keen to reinstate the country’s Olympic Committee in time for the closing ceremony. However, a second doping case at these Games, involving a Russian bobsledder, left the IOC no choice but to keep the suspension in place – at least for now.
As for the NHL, as International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel said prior to the gold-medal game “nobody in Germany cares whether the NHL is here or not”.
While this may only apply to Germany and their long-suffering ice hockey fans, there’s no escaping the fact that this tournament and particularly the gold-medal game, was way more interesting than when the NHL players were in Sochi four years ago. Sure the talent level was significantly higher in 2014, but there was absolutely no chance of an outsider making a run to the final as the Germans did in Pyeongchang.
This opinion first appeared at http://www.dw.com