Russians face unfamiliar wait for first Olympic gold
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) — The Winter Olympics are more than halfway done, and the Russians still don’t have a gold medal.
It’s an unpleasant experience for a country which finished atop the medal standings in the games it hosted four years ago in Sochi with 13 gold medals — though two of those have since been stripped for doping.
But then again, the country of Russia is not here.
On the wall of the “Olympic athletes from Russia” delegation office in Pyeongchang, there’s a board titled “our podium” with Russian medal-winners’ photos attached under pictures of gold, silver and bronze medals. The gold column is empty.
“We’d like to fill in that part of the chart, so that we get a number instead of a zero,” the head of the delegation, Stanislav Pozdnyakov, said Sunday. “I think we’re justified in hoping for gold medals.”
Russians traditionally consider the medals race the biggest event of all — coming first is considered “winning the Olympics” — but as of Sunday afternoon in Pyeongchang, Russian athletes had two silver and seven bronze medals.
Like most of the world, Russia counts gold medals first in the standings, so to sit behind Belarus and Britain is galling for the team.
A key reason for the team’s lack of gold medals here is that the International Olympic Committee refused to invite dozens of Russian athletes, saying it couldn’t be sure they hadn’t been part of doping schemes.
Among those missing were 2014 gold medalists including cross-country skier Alexander Legkov and skeleton slider Alexander Tretiakov, plus top speedskaters and biathletes. That has forced some little-known Russians to step into the role of team leaders.
Among those is the 21-year-old cross-country skier Alexander Bolshunov, who won bronze in the sprint, missing out on gold by 1.36 seconds.
Pozdnyakov said Bolshunov and other cross-country skiers were a new generation of Russian athletes with eyes on the 2022 Olympics in Beijing.
“A lot of our team’s leaders weren’t invited to the Games, and they were replaced by young athletes who were representing junior teams just yesterday,” he said. “These guys have been winning bronze medals, so from our point of view it’s the main achievement of the first week.”
The lack of top athletes has also left Russia’s team unable to field relay squads for sports such as speedskating, limiting their medal chances further.
A slump after Sochi was expected anyway — Olympic hosts tend to perform above their usual level — but as well as the doping issues, there’s also been some bad luck. Snowboarder Nikolai Olyunin, a silver medalist in 2014, left Pyeongchang with his leg broken in three places after a fall.
The Russians are now seemingly back to the level of the team that competed at Vancouver in 2010.
Back then, Russia won 15 medals, only three of them gold — considered so embarrassing that former Moscow anti-doping lab director Grigory Rodchenkov said it persuaded officials to set up an intensive doping program in time for the Sochi Games.
So who could still win a Russian gold medal in Pyeongchang?
Women’s figure skating appears to be a good shot. Two-time reigning world champion Evgenia Medvedeva broke her own short program world record in the team event, and has only lost to one skater since 2015 — her teammate Alina Zagitova. That medal will be decided Feb. 23.
The men’s hockey team is a contender, too, with Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datysuk among the very best non-NHL talent in Pyeongchang. An opening 3-2 loss to Slovakia rattled Russian fans’ nerves, but the team was much more dominant in an 8-2 demolition of Slovenia and a 4-0 win over the U.S.
There are also medal hopes in aerials skiing with Ilya Burov, and in snowboard slalom, where U.S.-born Vic Wild and his wife Alena Zavarzina were both 2014 gold medalists, though neither has won an event this season.
If a Russian athlete wins gold in Pyeongchang, they’ll hear the Olympic anthem play. The IOC rules on “Olympic Athletes from Russia” mean they’re competing in neutral uniforms under the Olympic flag. The IOC could decide Feb. 24 to lift Russia’s suspension for the closing ceremony, a formal return to the Olympic family after doping scandals.
“We’re happy with every medal,” despite the lack of gold, Pozdnyakov said. “Our main target is to get the flag back.”