MOSCOW – Russia’s Olympic team is competing abroad in unmarked uniforms without the country’s flag – not unlike the Russian army on its unacknowledged military incursions, as one joke making the rounds in Moscow notes.
When a Russian wins a gold medal and takes the top spot on the podium, the country’s national anthem doesn’t play. Instead, a portion of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 celebrates the winner.
“Let them listen to classical music,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, said in a video the ministry released to cheer on the not-exactly-Russian team.
With humor and pride, Russians are gloating over their athletes’ many medals this summer despite a prohibition on national symbols at the Tokyo Summer Olympics – a punishment for egregious past doping infractions.
“Will this stop our guys?” Tina Kandelaki, a social media influencer, wrote on Instagram. “No. The Olympics become one of those situations when you want to prove and show to everybody that you are Russian.”
Indeed, sports fans and sports commentators are having no trouble seeing through the thin fiction of the odd, bureaucratic moniker of their team: ROC, an acronym for the Russian Olympic Committee.
“Nobody is bothered at all by this situation,” Dmitri Kozika, a bartender at Probka, a sports bar, said of Russian sports fans.
Through the warm twilight of a recent summer evening in Moscow, fans sat at leather-upholstered bar stools, sipped beers and kept an eye on replays from Tokyo. When Russians rack up gold, which happens often enough at any Olympics, the patrons cheer, Kozika said.
If anything, he added, the extra scrutiny of their team, which had to pass a rigorous drug clearance program, has given Russian sports fans a restored sense of pride in the victories that followed. “They checked our guys really thoroughly,” Kozika said. “They are clean.”
Roman Pritula, an ambulance medic taking a well-deserved break at the bar from Covid-19 duty, similarly shrugged off the Russian team’s strange name.
“It doesn’t prevent us from being proud,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if they compete under the Olympic flag. They are still Russians. And when they win, it causes positive emotions.”
And even officials who once complained bitterly about the doping restrictions have taken to lightly poking fun at what was meant to be a humbling state of affairs.
The Foreign Ministry video, for example, ended with the thumping drums of the rock song by Queen “We Will Rock You” – which is rendered in writing, of course, as “We Will ROC You.”
The commanding victory over the United States in women’s team gymnastics, the head of Russia’s Olympic Committee, Stanislav Pozdnyakov, said proudly, will inspire a new generation of young Russian girls to become gymnasts.
Russians Lilia Akhaimova, Viktoria Listunova, Angelina Melnikova and Vladislava Urazova won gold medals after American star Simone Biles pulled out of the competition, saying she had become dangerously disoriented during a vault and wasn’t mentally prepared to continue.
“Honestly, I’m full of emotion,” Pozdnyakov told the Tass news agency. “It’s been a long time since we dominated like this in gymnastics. It’s really important in team disciplines, as it inspires and fills with spirit the other teams and motivates the young.”
The sports commentator for state Channel 1, Dmitry Guberniyev, was so inspired by the Russian – sorry, ROC – victory that he suggested declaring a national holiday.
“We just need a Russia-wide celebration,” he said. “The team was just unbelievable. We are creating miracles.”
Lidiya Ivanova, a commentator on Match TV, a Russian sports channel, could not curb her enthusiasm as the Russian female gymnasts won the gold.
“What are you achieving, our girls! You are the best because you are Russians! You defended the honor of the country,” she said. “I adore you. Everybody adores you.”
And Russians have more to look forward to from the ROC: Some events that Russian female athletes have historically dominated with crushing mastery, including artistic swimming and rhythmic gymnastics, lie ahead.
Russians have pointed with pride to the actions of a female fencer, Marta Martyanova, whatever the name of her team.
Martyanova refused to bow out despite a leg trauma painful enough to leave her crying and hopping on one foot. At that point no substitutes were allowed in the team competition, and withdrawal would have cost the Russians a shot at a medal, so her stoic endurance saved the day. Russia’s team went on to win the gold.
“A true young woman hero,” the Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said.
The doping restrictions have hung over Russian sports for years, to the point Russian sports fans no longer pay attention, Alexei Durnovo, a commentator for Telesport, said in an interview.
“They just want to watch sports, not think about what is happening in medical laboratories,” he said.
The roots of the restrictions lie in one of the worst cheating scandals in sports history: During the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, there was a campaign by coaches, athletes and the Russian security services to swap contaminated urine samples for clean ones.
The violations eventually came to involve more than 1,000 athletes, coaches and sports officials in Russia and led to blanket bans on Russia’s competing in international sports, including the Olympics.
Russia spent years trying to overturn the bans and in December won a partial victory in the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which cleared the way for 330 Russians to compete in Tokyo, although not in national uniform, over the objections of anti-doping officials.
Many Russians are just happy to see their gymnasts, swimmers, equestrians, archers and other athletes have a shot at medals. But on a darker note, beating the doping restrictions for some Russians also became something to cheer for this summer.
Russian propaganda and even some of the team members have been thumbing their noses at the doping regulators’ flimsy form of punishment.
A wall mural in Moscow, for example, shows a martial arts practitioner in a kimono sporting a bear emblem flipping a competitor in a kimono with the insignia of WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency.
The Russian artistic swimming team tried to compete in bear-themed swimsuits, only to have that plan vetoed by Olympic officials for the obvious reference to a Russian national symbol.
A team member, Alla Shishkina, complained bitterly, RT reported. “This annoyed us,” she said. “Bears live in many countries, not only in Russia. This could have been any bear! A grizzly, a panda, anything. But they banned it just for our country.”
But, she added, “we just got a little upset in the changing room, that was all. The most important thing is to perform well.”
[This article originally appeared in The New York Times.]