GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — They weren’t allowed to fly their flag or play their anthem. That didn’t mean there were no celebrations for the Russians in Pyeongchang.
A drought-breaking hockey victory on Sunday and a women’s figure skating title provided a prestige boost for a team of athletes who arrived at the Winter Games amid the humiliation of International Olympic Committee sanctions for a doping scheme in Sochi four years earlier.
“You know it was only 7 a.m. in Russia when we start play, but I think now everybody’s up and they’re celebrating. Today will be a holiday in Russia,” forward Ilya Kovalchuk said after helping the Russians edge Germany 4-3 in overtime to win the Olympic gold medal.
The “Olympic Athletes from Russia” — the name they were designated as part of the IOC’s sanctions — also collected six silver medals and nine bronze.
That ranked the OAR team sixth in terms of total medals but an unfamiliar 13th in terms of gold medals won, the measure for success used by most Russians.
Team Russia won 13 gold at the Winter Games it hosted in Sochi in 2014, but later lost two for doping.
For those watching in Russia, Pyeongchang was an Olympics marked by legal battles rather than sports.
On top of that, they had to wait two weeks for their first gold medal.
The champion of the games for many Russians was the 15-year-old figure skater Alina Zagitova, a graceful competitor with incredible jumping ability, and a powerful symbol of a post-Sochi generation.
Of the 168 Russians invited to compete in Pyeongchang — the third largest team — most hadn’t been in Sochi. That was because of a mix of retirements, doping bans and a vetting process which ruled out dozens of athletes including some gold-medal contenders because an IOC commission said it couldn’t be sure they weren’t involved in past doping schemes.
The opening ceremony was preceded by legal challenges as 45 Russian athletes appealed against the IOC’s refusal to invite them. Hours before the opening ceremony, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in favor of the IOC. At the ceremony, Russia marched in gray coats behind the Olympic flag, which was held by an Olympic volunteer, not an athlete.
Significantly, the first Russian to compete at the Winter Games since the Sochi doping scandals later failed a doping test. After days of denials and allegations of drink-spiking, mixed doubles curler Alexander Krushelnitsky was disqualified and had to surrender his bronze medal, which was later awarded to Norway.
The lawyers were called in again for bobsledder Nadezhda Sergeeva, who accepted a disqualification Saturday after testing positive for a banned heart medication.
The out-of-competition focus overshadowed some surprising medal achievements. A team of young cross-country skiers won three silver and four bronze medals, almost half the Russian total, but attracted scrutiny because four skiers are coached by a man once suspended over doping.
Russia’s medal hopes were reduced in part because the Russian Olympic Committee opted not to fill more than 40 open slots with other athletes when its preferred choices didn’t pass IOC vetting. That left the Russians unable to compete in relays in sports like biathlon and speedskating because it couldn’t field enough athletes.
At the closing ceremony, Russia would appear under the Olympic flag, likely for the last time. The IOC had agreed to reinstate Russia if no more drug tests from Pyeongchang come back positive.
Despite the lack of logos and flags, it seemed everyone knew who the “Olympic Athletes from Russia” were.
After weeks of chafing under IOC rules that barred them from criticizing the doping sanctions or wearing Team Russia uniforms, the hockey players ended the Olympics on a note of defiance. As the Olympic anthem played for their medal ceremony, the players joined hundreds of spectators in belting out the Russian anthem.
It was “freedom of speech,” defenseman Bogdan Kiselevich explained.
“We sang because we are Russian people and when you win, your country’s anthem plays,” he said. “It was with heart and soul.”