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Russian Olympians adapt to life in a neutral uniform

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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.”

Andre De Grasse’s return headlines Drake Relays on NBC Sports

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Andre De Grasse believes he could have entered the Drake Relays as the world champion in the 100m and 200m. Instead, he watched those finals last August. One from his hotel room. The other on replay on social media.

De Grasse, the Rio Olympic 100m bronze medalist and 200m silver medalist, will race for the first time in nine months at the Drake Relays in Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday as part of NBC Sports’ weekend track and field coverage.

NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold will air live coverage of the Drake Relays and Penn Relays.

Friday
Penn Relays: 5-6 p.m. ET, NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold

Saturday
Penn Relays: 12:30-3 p.m. ET, NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold
Drake Relays: 3-5 p.m. ET, NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold

The Canadian De Grasse is the Drake Relays headliner, racing for the first time since suffering a grade 2 right hamstring strain four days before last year’s worlds in London.

De Grasse faces a Drake field that includes six other men who have broken 10 seconds, but of them only U.S. Olympian Mike Rodgers (9.85) has a better personal best than De Grasse’s 9.91 from the Rio Olympic final.

Rodgers, a decade older than De Grasse, hasn’t broken 10 seconds in his last 28 wind-legal races, according to Tilastopaja.org.

The field is not of much concern for De Grasse.

“I’m not looking for a specific time or anything,” he said Monday. “Just looking to get my legs under me, get the rust off, see what I can do and go from there.”

De Grasse said in a recent CBC interview that he’s been training for five months since the injury. He remembers the thoughts as he watched the world championships, starting with Usain Bolt‘s relegation to bronze in his last individual race won by Justin Gatlin‘s late surge.

“I knew that it could have been anybody’s race; [silver medalist Christian] Coleman could have won, Bolt could have won or Gatlin,” De Grasse said Monday. “When I watched it, I was surprised because usually Bolt would usually catch [up to win]. Coleman was out in front. You couldn’t really see where Gatlin was. Usually, Bolt would come back at the end. It looked like, for sure, that would happen. It looked like from my view that Coleman won. When I saw the replay, Gatlin kind of just snuck in there. … I was definitely surprised of the outcome. … I wish I could have been in it, but there’s going to be more opportunities for me.”

(De Grasse said he has not recently spoken with Bolt or “anybody in track in a while.” Last July, De Grasse’s coach was quoted saying that his sprinter was “booted out” of a race per Bolt’s wishes, which De Grasse later denied in a report, calling Bolt a legend.)

Gatlin’s winning time was 9.92 seconds into a .8 meters/second headwind. De Grasse failed to break 10 seconds in all five of his wind-legal 100m races last season, but he did run 9.69 with a mammoth 4.8 meters/second tailwind a month and a half before worlds.

Then came the world 200m final five days later. De Grasse said he had never heard of surprise winner Ramil Guliyev of Turkey. Guliyev won in 20.09, the slowest Olympic or world gold-medal time since 2003.

“I ran against all of those guys before and felt like I was capable of winning a race like that if I wasn’t injured,” De Grasse said. “To be honest, I had never heard of most of those guys in the 200m final except for I think a couple of guys, Wayde van Niekerk and [Nethaneel] Mitchell-Blake from Great Britain.”

De Grasse’s goals this season include breaking the Canadian 100m record of 9.84 (shared by Bruny Surin and Donovan Bailey, the latter’s time a then-world record at the 1996 Olympics). He would like to lower his 200m personal best of 19.80 from Rio.

He wants to win a Diamond League trophy for being the best man over 100m or 200m through the season. The 100m remains his preferred distance (“That’s the glory event.”).

De Grasse said he plans to race most of the Diamond League schedule, starting with the first two meets in Doha and Shanghai the next two weeks. De Grasse and Coleman are slated for a head-to-head at a Diamond League meet in London in July.

No matter what De Grasse does this season, he does not believe he can wrestle the mantle of world’s fastest man from Gatlin or Coleman.

“You can’t say off this year that you’re the fastest man in the world,” De Grasse said, noting it’s the only year in the quadrennium without a global championships. “You’ve got to wait until next year to do that.”

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MORE: Usain Bolt sets extended stay with Borussia Dortmund

U.S. snowboarder Brock Crouch seriously injured in avalanche

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U.S. snowboarder and surfer Brock Crouch was buried alive for five minutes in an avalanche before being rescued with three broken vertebrae, according to an older brother’s Instagram and USA Surfing.

Crouch, 18, “was swept off an 80-foot cliff,” by the avalanche while snowboarding in Canada, according to USA Surfing, adding that he fractured his T12, L1 and L2 vertebrae.

Images of Crouch holding a thumbs-up and peace sign lying in a hospital bed were posted on his Instagram Story on Tuesday.

“I was riding with Brock two days ago when he took a nasty ride in an avalanche down multiple rock bands due to a cornice failure resulting in him being buried for about 4 or 5 minutes,” was posted on snowboarder John Jackson‘s Instagram on Tuesday. “Crazy how a situation like this can surprise you so quickly. I’m so glad the whole crew performed a rockstar rescue and Brock is strong enough to handle what he went down.”

Crouch was in the running to make the PyeongChang Olympic team in big air and slopestyle but missed the four-man roster. He won the Olympic slopestyle test event in South Korea in 2016.

Can’t explain how happy I am to see this guy! @brockcrouch you are a soldier! I was riding with Brock two days ago when he took a nasty ride in an avalanche down multiple rock bands due to a cornice failure resulting in him being buried for about 4 or 5 minutes. Crazy how a situation like this can surprise you so quickly. I’m so glad the whole crew performed a rockstar rescue and Brock is strong enough to handle what he went down. Especially thankful for our pilot Josh, who didn’t waste a second in the situation. I was so impressed with this kids talent while we were riding all morning and know he will come back with a fury to continue getting after it. Love you bud, and massive prayers for that body to heal quickly! #extreme18 will be back! Although might have to change the m.o. to #nasty19 👊 #toughasnails

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