2018-02-11 14:27:04
What Ban? Patriotic Fervor Grips Russia’s Celebration House in South Korea

14:27, February 11 155 0

GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Russia isn’t supposed to be at these Olympic Games, and yet the country is very much here.

There are nearly 170 Russian athletes in South Korea and even a converted seafront wedding hall decked in all manner of Russian paraphernalia that is serving as Russia’s social headquarters.

At about 9.30 p.m. Saturday, Russia’s national anthem filled the hall, known simply as “Sports House.” Many of the two dozen people rose to their feet and sang along with gusto.

They were celebrating a first Russian medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics, a short-track speedskating bronze won by Semen Elistratov. Elistratov was unable to parade in his nation’s flag at the medal ceremony, under restrictions imposed by the International Olympic Committee for Russia’s state-backed doping scheme.

Being unable to use the word Russia or the Olympic rings in the facility’s logo appears to be the only restrictions at the house.

Yet, three days into the Games, the feeling of Russian pride here is unmistakable. A giant nesting doll plastered onto a wall identifies the entrance, and a flight of stairs leads into a main room filled with memorabilia evoking Russian Olympic success and culture. Guests can grab tea from large samovars before viewing an exhibit of jerseys and medals from the country’s hockey successes, dating to the Soviet period when the Red Machine ruled.

For a country that continues to receive international condemnation for the doping conspiracy, Russia isn’t intent on keeping a low profile.

“Russia is a full participant in the Olympic Games, and Russia can show its sporting power,” the country’s ambassador to South Korea, Alexander Timonin, said when opening the celebration venue Friday. “We believe in our athletes, we are proud of them, and we hope that they can achieve their very best sporting results and bring glory to our great motherland.”

The nationalist fervor is at odds with the demands issued by the International Olympic Committee, which barred the country’s Olympic officials from attending, prohibited the official display of the country’s flag and uniforms and refused the playing of its national anthem as punishment for a yearslong doping program that had corrupted several Winter and Summer Games.

A total of 47 athletes the I.O.C. deemed tainted by the doping scheme were denied entry to the games as well.

Still, the I.O.C. told Russia that if its delegation behaved, it would get its flag back for the closing ceremony on Feb. 25. Yet Russia continues to dispute the existence of a doping conspiracy, and the overt display of Olympic success seems to be at odds with the I.O.C.’s request for a more contrite posture.

The I.O.C said it was monitoring events at the facility to ensure it complied with the ban issued to Russia’s Olympic committee.

The Sports House “is a hospitality venue that is available to all sports fans to celebrate the Olympic Winter Games Pyeongchang 2018,” the I.O.C. said in a statement. “It is run by a commercial third party, and the I.O.C. has made the operator aware of the conduct guidelines.”

Elistratov dressed in a blue and white outfit with the letters OAR, for Olympic Athletes of Russia, on his right breast pocket as he skated to a third-place finish. He added an understated gray track top for the medal ceremony. Russian fans in the stands waved their nation’s tricolor flag; the I.O.C.’s ban isn’t extended to them.

Elistratov dedicated his victory to the scores of athletes banned from the Olympics for their connection to the doping scheme, a group that includes Viktor Ahn, the Korean-born short-track speed skater who has won six Olympic gold medals.

After the race, Elistratov urged his countrymen and women to “fight to the end and never give in.”

“Under all these circumstances, the medal is like a gold one to me,” he told reporters. “Everyone was encouraging me. They would say, ‘Listen to nobody and go ahead to the end.’”

Others have taken to social media to express patriotic displays of support and contempt for the I.O.C. They include the two-time pole vault gold medalist and current member of the I.O.C.’s Athletes Commission Yelena Isinbayeva. On Instagram, she vowed that even though the team was depleted, Russia would prosper in Pyeongchang because “Russians become invincible in anger.”

At the Sports House, there was similar emotion. “Our hearts are broken for the athletes not here,” said a young staff member who traveled from Moscow earlier this week.

Between events that were broadcast on a giant screen, beaming a live transmission of the Games from Russian state television, a party host mounted an elevated stage to lead the few guests in dancing along to upbeat tracks, including Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.”

On the other side of the room, there were multiple framed photographs of Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin. The Russian leader has brushed off the doping scandal as an invention of the United States to destabilize his efforts at re-election later this year.

A board listing the venue’s backers included the logo of an influential group called Russian Olympians Foundation, which is backed by some of the country’s highest profile politicians and oligarchs. The foundation’s council of trustees includes billionaires Roman Abramovich, Alisher Usmanov and Oleg Deripaska. Prime Minister Dmitry A. Medvedev and Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko, who received a life ban from the Olympics in December, are also on the panel.

Olympic houses, like Russia’s, are a Games tradition and have become increasingly elaborate over the years. At the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Summer Games, the Netherlands created a giant dance floor that would mechanically cut away to form a runway for their medal winners to parade in front of hundreds of adoring fans. The venues also act as a refuge for athletes to spend downtime with friends and family members.

The Sports House — where the slogan “Russia in My Heart” is emblazoned in large type across temporary red-colored walls — will not be able to play host to athletes because of the ban, according to an official there. The I.O.C has limited patriotic displays by Russian athletes, permitting them to keep flags inside their bedrooms in the athletes’ village.

Fans, though, are able to drape themselves with whatever they like. A concession store offers an array of products from wrist bands, woolly hats and gloves to hockey jerseys bearing the two-headed eagle emblem of the Russian state on each shoulder and the “Russia in My Heart” slogan written in Russian letters.

The special designation assigned to Russia by the I.O.C has also spawned its own clothing line, with a Moscow-based company DDVB offering a range of patriotic products featuring the letters O.A.R.

One design includes a stencil of a bear roaring the letters “OARRRR” and a T-shirt with the slogan, “Truth is OAR Drug.”