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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.”

How Arianna Fontana quietly skated into short track history

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Arianna Fontana is silently one of the greatest short track skaters in Olympic history.

Her numbers at the Games speak for themselves; one gold, two silver, and five bronze. Those eight total medals make her the most decorated female short track skater by two medals, and tie her with legends Apolo Ohno and Viktor Ahn for most Olympic medals ever won by a short track skater.

But it is her numbers outside the Olympic stage that really call attention to her Olympic success. She is a 14-time world medalist, which is no small feat, but her podium appearances are spread over a 12-year competitive career. Someone like Elise Christie, for example, has won 12 world championships medals in just five years. And also unlike Christie, Fontana has never won an overall title.

But Christie struggled on the sport’s biggest stage in both Sochi and PyeongChang, and has yet to win her first Olympic medal. Fontana, on the other hand, has become such a consistent podium presence over the last two Games that she almost makes it look easy.

Before retiring from competition, Ohno won 21 world medals, eight of them gold. Ahn, still competing but not one of the athletes invited to competed at the PyeongChang Olympics as an Olympic Athlete from Russia, has to date has won 35 world medals, 20 of which were gold.

Fontana does not come from a short track power like South Korea or China, perhaps another reason why she is not more notorious.

Most of her medals are bronze, which could be used as a strike against her, but just ask Lindsey Vonn how hard she worked to get hers this year.

Fontana’s first medal came at the 2006 Torino Olympics, when she helped the Italian women to bronze in the 3000m relay at just 15 years old. Fontana earned her first individual medal, a bronze in the 500m, four years later in Vancouver.

But in Sochi, she exploded, making the podium in three out of four events: the 500m, where she won silver, and the 1500m and 3000m relay, where she picked up two more bronzes.

“I thought I was going to win a gold medal in Sochi but I still don’t have that,” Fontana said to the ISU in early 2017. “That’s there up in my mind and sometimes it comes out and says, ‘Hey, you still miss me? So come get me!'”.

But after the 2014-15 season, Fontana’s desire for gold was eclipsed by something else: burnout.

“I was pretty tired mentally. My body was ready to race again but my mind was not. It was hard for me. After the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, I had some doubts about whether to keep skating or not,” Fontana said to the ISU. “Maybe it would have been better to take that year right after the Olympic Games off, but I decided to keep going. It is not that I regret it, but I had some hard times that season.”

She stayed active during her time off, learning how to box, which eased the transition back to skating.

Her pursuit for gold was what motivated her comeback, and in 2018 Fontana got what she came back for.

“When I saw I was first, I was just yelling and started crying. I worked for four years and the last four months were really hard for me. I was really focused on getting here in the best shape ever,” Fontana said after earning the 500m Olympic title.

“I was chasing it and finally I got it.”

In addition to her 500m gold medal, Fontana also added a 1000m bronze and 3000m relay bronze.

Fontana has spoken about retirement, but has not made a definitive decision. She will only be 31 years old by the time 2022 rolls around, so she could feasibly add to her medal haul if she competes. What she has made clear is that when she does leave the sport she hopes to become a personal trainer.

Whenever she does retire Fontana should be considered not only one of the greatest Italian athletes or greatest short track skaters, but also one of the greatest Winter Olympians.

How to watch Closing Ceremony of 2018 Winter Olympics

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Another Olympics is in the books.

The PyeongChang Closing Ceremony will cap off the 2018 Winter Games Sunday morning, beginning at 6 a.m. ET / 3 a.m. PT with a live stream of the events.

Jessie Diggins has been named the U.S. flag bearer after an incredibly gutsy performance to take home the country’s first-ever gold medal in Cross-Country.

How, when and where to watch the Closing Ceremony

Stream LIVE on NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app: Sunday at 6 a.m. ET / 3 a.m. PT (Stream here)

The live stream will feature all the sights and sounds of the Closing Ceremony without any commentary.

Watch on TV: Sunday at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT on NBC (Stream here)

The Olympic figure skating commentating trio of Tara Lipinski, Johnny Weir and Terry Gannon will host the Closing Ceremony on NBC in primetime beginning at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT.

“It’s a huge honor and privilege,” Lipinski said. “I’m so excited to embark on this new and exciting adventure and bring the Closing Ceremony to the U.S.”

“This is a glorious and unexpected experience that I can’t wait to get fancy for!” Weir said.

Mike Tirico – NBC’s primetime host throughout the PyeongChang Games – hosted the Closing Ceremony for Rio in 2016 alongside Ryan Seacrest and Mary Carillo.

Tirico and Katie Couric hosted the PyeongChang Opening Ceremony in South Korea two weeks ago.

Sunday night’s primetime edition of the Closing Ceremony will also feature simulstreams on NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app. (Stream here)