PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) – Nadezhda Sergeeva’s bobsled training outfit says a lot about what life will be like for an “Olympic Athlete from Russia.”
There is an old, anonymous black race suit with tape over several logos. Underneath, a white T-shirt with a simple message – “I Don’t Do Doping.”
As punishment for doping offenses at the 2014 Sochi Games, the International Olympic Committee has forced Russian athletes competing in Pyeongchang to do so as OARs in neutral uniforms and with no national insignia.
Sergeeva told The Associated Press that she isn’t training with her doping-themed shirt as a protest, but because her usual Russia uniform would break the new IOC rules. Wearing the shirt – sold by a popular Russian sportswear brand – is just a way to keep warm, she said.
“There just wasn’t enough time (to get a neutral uniform),” Sergeeva said at Wednesday’s training session. “To start with, we had a lot of equipment intended for us with the flag, a really big assortment, but we weren’t issued it.”
For Friday’s opening ceremony, Russia will march under the Olympic flag in red and gray tracksuits with an “Olympic Athlete from Russia” emblem.
To get to the Olympics, Sergeeva had to pass an IOC vetting process, with athletes’ names checked against data of possible past Russian drug use and cover-ups. Dozens of Russians weren’t invited by the IOC, including some top bobsledders, but Sergeeva said athletes from the United States and Canada have warmed to her because she was approved.
“I don’t know why, but they’ve started talking to us more than ever before. I feel it. Maybe it’s a sign to them that we’re clean,” she said. “There’s a lot of people coming up and saying ‘we’re happy you’re here.'”
As a result of the IOC ruling, a 168-person not quite-Russian team, still one of the biggest in Pyeongchang, will wear hastily redesigned or repurposed uniforms. When the IOC decision came in December, it was too late to make new team bags for everyone, so many have traveled with electrical tape over the word “Russia” on their luggage.
Russian athletes have flown to South Korea in small groups, not the traditional “Olympic flight” on Aeroflot which usually sees teams depart as a unit and with much pageantry. Most national teams have a flag-raising ceremony when they arrive at the Olympic Village. None is scheduled for Russia because officially it isn’t competing.
The only Russians to turn up with some swagger are the men’s hockey team, the favorite for gold since the NHL is not participating.
The hockey players were greeted at the airport Tuesday by crowd of about 50 Russians and South Koreans waving flags and singing patriotic songs. A week earlier, the players attended a reception for athletes with President Vladimir Putin, the only OARs there wearing Russian uniforms instead of the IOC-approved neutral tracksuits in red and gray.
They then handed Putin a signed jersey emblazoned with the slogan “Russia is in my heart.” But in Pyeongchang, patriotic displays could land Russian athletes in trouble.
The IOC ruling bans them from defiant statements on social media, or flying the flag in the Olympic Village. Maxim Andrianov, another Russian bobsledder, said he doesn’t even have a flag inside his room “in case it’s visible from outside.”
If Russian athletes win gold, they can’t celebrate by taking a Russian flag from a fan. On the podium, they’ll stand under the Olympic flag as the Olympic anthem plays.
Breaking the rules could mean the IOC scraps its plan for Russia to march under its own flag at the closing ceremony on Feb. 25 – a symbolic return to the Olympic movement after nearly three months.
Officially, the Russian Olympic Committee is suspended and the OARs are just a collection of individual athletes invited by the IOC. In practice, they’re one of the biggest teams in Pyeongchang, with an ROC vice president as team leader and a fully staffed media office. IOC deputy director general Pere Miro said Tuesday running a team of this size “cannot be done without full cooperation of the Russian Olympic Committee.”
The team of 168 could swell yet further.
Forty-five Russian athletes refused invites by the IOC have launched a late barrage of appeals to sports arbiters and Swiss courts. The IOC argues it has new evidence which casts doubt on their claims to be clean – even in the cases of athletes whose bans for doping in Sochi were overturned – but hasn’t revealed any details of individual cases.
Successful appeals would be a blow to the IOC, which would have to accept athletes it deems suspicious. They could even result in other Russians being sent home. When top Russians in sports like figure skating and hockey were refused, others took their places on the team, and could lose out if the first choices are reinstated.
Besides a few Russian fans making the journey to South Korea, another group is waiting for the OARs – the drug testers.
“It’s just the height of rudeness,” women’s hockey coach Alexei Chistyakov told Russian state TV on Monday after drug testers interrupted his team’s first training session in Pyeongchang. “They’re ruining everything for us.”
For Sergeeva, there’s a silver lining to her neutral uniform. She hopes it finally marks the end of what she sees as a years-long plot by Russia’s foes.
“It has to end some time,” she said. “Maybe it was done specially for this Olympics, and then they will calm down.”