5 min read.Updated: 04 Aug 2021, 10:35 PM ISTGEORGI KANTCHEV, The Wall Street Journal
Still banned from competing under their own flag or anthem, athletes of the Russian Olympic Committee are sweeping up medals beyond even their own expectations.
Russia’s not really at the Olympics. But that hasn’t stopped the world’s largest country from hauling gold out of Tokyo like a Siberian mine.
The Russian Olympic Committee, as the athletes competing here are known, has 52 total medals at the Tokyo Games, putting them behind only China and the U.S. They can’t celebrate under their flag. Nor can they blare the Russian national anthem on the podium. Yet they’re walking away with hardware in some of the Olympics’ biggest and most prestigious events, even after the country was technically banned for a yearslong, state-sponsored doping scheme.
For the athletes who did make it to Tokyo, it took surviving the twin blows of national ignominy and Covid-19. It turns out that these might have been the best things to happen to them. In the midst of a global pandemic, Russians discovered a secret training weapon that was available to few other athletes on the planet: their own geography.
By locking themselves down in places like the far-flung Eastern city of Vladivostok or the Sakhalin island, many ROC stars were able to prepare in similar time zones and conditions as Japan.
Others, like the gymnasts, may not have been 4,000 miles from Moscow, but practiced in intense Russian bubbles that transformed the pandemic into a grueling, non-stop grind.
“We trained—a lot," said Russian gold medalist gymnast Angelina Melnikova, who was cooped up for months in a Soviet-built training camp called Round Lake where foreigners were prohibited from entering. “We were basically in a closed training camp for a year and a half working very hard without seeing our families or having normal lives."
The Russian Olympic Committee arrived in Tokyo still under the cloud of a doping scandal dating back to the run-up to the Sochi Games in 2014. After a string of investigations, appeals, and punishments, Russian was ultimately banned from most international sports until the end of next year. A team of 330 Russian athletes was allowed to compete under the banner of the ROC and celebrate medals to the tune of a Tchaikovsky piano concerto instead of the anthem.
Melnikova was part of the Russian team that wrested the women’s team gold away from the Americans after back-to-back U.S. titles in Rio and London. It was the first time a team awkwardly representing Russia had won the event since the Unified Team of former Soviet Union states prevailed in 1992. Melnikova also took two more bronzes, and the triumphs came after an extraordinary set of circumstances allowed her to practice in a way that other athletes across the globe couldn’t.
When gyms in the U.S. and other countries closed their doors to stop the spread of a novel coronavirus, she and her teammates entered an unprecedented boot camp. It didn’t just give them a chance to continue working. It allowed them to do so without distractions.
“Of course it was worth it," she said after earning her second medal, “and maybe it was for the best because we were more concentrated on the practice."
Ahead of the Games, the ROC said it expected its athletes to win around 50 medals. They clinched that with six days left in the competition. They have been so successful that sometimes the only people stopping Russians from winning gold were other Russians.
In the tennis mixed doubles final, the pair of Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Andrey Rublev defeated Elena Vesnina and Aslan Karatsev in the final. They knew the conditions well. A few weeks earlier, Russia’s tennis stars had sweated through a camp together on Sakhalin island north of Japan.
“It’s very special to have Russians playing well in the Olympic Games," Rublev said. “We had a good preparation first of all, one week in Sakhalin. The Russian Federation made the opportunity to practice there to get used to the time zone and the weather conditions, so we came here prepared."
Covid-19 prevented most countries from sending their athletes to Tokyo early to do the same. But the Russians had their own outpost on the Sea of Japan. Vladivostok is only some 600 miles west and an hour ahead of Tokyo and they were able to simulate similar conditions they’d be competing under.
Known as Russia’s Far Eastern capital, the city became an Olympic Village of sorts, with athletes in some 15 sports, from archery to wrestling, training in the region. The swimmers were initially due to train in Osaka, Japan, but the camp was canceled due to the pandemic and they headed to Russia’s port city as well.
The sports ministry invested in buying equipment and inventory for the athletes in Vladivostok.
“The athletes have always trained here and have given good results," the region’s governor Oleg Kozhemyako said in July.
The tennis mixed doubles wasn’t the only final with all-Russian intrigue. Sofia Pozdniakova outdueled Sofya Velikaya for the women’s sabre gold in fencing. And Vitalina Batsarashkina outshot Anastasiia Galashina when they finished first and second in the women’s 10-meter air rifle event.
The country-that-shall-not-be-named even made some history at these Olympics. Maksim Khramtcov became the first-ever Russian to win gold in taekwondo. He wasn’t alone for long: Vladislav Larin won gold in another weight class just one day later. The Russians men’s gymnastics team, like the women, also reclaimed the gold and it was their first since 1996.
“Do you remember the news about the typhoon this morning?" said Russian men’s gymnast Nikita Nagornyy. “Well, the typhoon has happened. We took the medal, so don’t worry about the typhoon any more."
All of that success has turned up the heat on the Olympics’ lingering Cold War. Athletes haven’t hidden their feelings that all Russian athletes should have been banned from Tokyo along with their flag.
“Seeing a crew who shouldn’t even be here walk away with a silver is a nasty feeling," American rower Megan Kalmoe tweeted after a Russian pair took second place. American swimmer Ryan Murphy said Friday’s 200-meter backstroke final was “probably not clean" after he lost to Russian Evgeny Rylov.
The Russians have been even less shy in fighting back.
“Yes, we are here at the Olympics. Absolutely right," the ROC said on Friday. “Whether someone likes it or not."
“Forgive those who are weaker," the ROC continued. “God is their judge. And for us—an assistant."
Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova went even further in a clip she posted on Instagram where she pummels a boxing doll that features a PRESS tag—Russian officials have long argued that the doping allegations against the country were blown out of proportion by the Western media. “We will ROC you," she addresses Russia’s competitors, referring to a popular hashtag on social media #WeWillRocYou.
Then she adds one more comment: “From Russia with Love."
This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text
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