No Delegation, No Problem for Thriving Russian Olympics BusinessBy , , and
Apparel sales, advertising is brisk, even as medal count lags
‘You can take our flag and our name. You don’t take our soul’
When the Russian men’s hockey team scored two goals in 27 seconds to take the lead in an Olympic semifinal Friday, the arena rocked as if it were in Moscow. Russian fans sang and danced, cheering on the players with chants of “RO-SEE-YA,” and “Red Machine.” At the end of the 3-0 win, players acknowledged a fan zone that was draped in the red, white and blue of the Russian flag.
So much for an Olympic ban. Plenty of Russian athletes are competing in Pyeongchang and the fans and sponsors have turned out in full force in South Korea and back home in Russia. Despite a dearth of medals (and two more failed drug tests), the business around the Russian Olympic team has barely changed.
“Some people may have expected that the toxic environment around these games might have impacted our bottom line,” said Petr Makarenko, president of Telesport, which advises the three Russian channels that carry the games domestically. “But if anyone was expecting a horror show, I hope they’re not disappointed that we didn’t oblige.”
The Russian delegation was officially suspended from the Winter Games after a three-year investigation found evidence of widespread, state-sponsored doping, what International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach called "an unprecedented attack on the integrity" of the games. Russian athletes who hadn’t been implicated in the doping scandal, though, were still allowed to compete under the Olympic flag as ’Olympic Athletes from Russia’ (OAR).
“Three quarters of the Russian athletes that are competing here weren’t in Sochi,” IOC board member Angela Ruggiero said. “You want to make sure they have the opportunity to compete and things won’t prevent them from doing that.”
In the end, Russia sent 169 athletes, making it one of the biggest contingents in South Korea. To many, this only emphasized the weakness of the ban and anti-doping enforcement in general; in Pyeongchang, two Russian athletes tested positive for banned substances. Aleksandr Krushelnitckii’s failed test will cost the Russian curlers their mixed doubles bronze medal.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied the charges of state-sponsored doping and has blamed international politics for the ban. Yelena Isinbayeva, a Russian pole vaulter and IOC member, has said that many clean athletes were barred without explanation. Russian speed skater Semen Elistratov, who won the country’s first medal in South Korea, dedicated the win to his banned compatriots who’d received “unfair” treatment.
For fans in Pyeongchang and nationalists at home, supporting Russia’s athletes has taken on new importance. Russian Olympics broadcasters rarely mention the ban, and it’s had no effect on advertisers, according to Makarenko. Ratings are 5 to 10 percent below projections, a deficit that may be erased this weekend when Russia faces Germany for hockey gold, a medal Russia hasn’t won since the country began competing without the former Soviet republics.
Moscow-based sportswear company ZA Sport, which pays a reported $10 million annually for the rights to sell official Russian Olympic gear, says sales are brisk, even though athletes in Pyeongchang aren’t allowed to wear it. The company is also planning to sell merchandise featuring the generic red and white ‘OAR’ logo, which has become an unanticipated symbol of national pride.
"We’ve received so many requests for the ‘neutral’ collection that we are going to start sales soon,” said ZA Sport spokeswoman Ekaterina Bykova. Before the games began, bobsledder Nadezhda Sergeeva, appeared in a ZA Sport advertisement wearing a shirt that read, “I don’t do doping.” This week, she was the second Russian athlete to test positive for banned substances.
The OAR moniker has spawned unofficial merchandise as well. Moscow-based design firm DDVB released prints for t-shirts and hats with slogans like “Red OARmy,” “We OAR the champions,” and “You know OAR Flag, OAR anthem, OAR country.”
“The motherland is not only a tricolor. It’s our unbending will, national pride and Russian ingenuity,” DDVB creative director Dmitry Peryshkov says on the firm’s website. “This is our struggle for victory and justice. And in this fight, the truth is our main dope.”
The Russian Olympic Committee is lobbying to be reinstated before the end of the games, a concession that would let the OAR athletes march under the nation’s flag at the closing ceremony. The ROC has already paid the $15 million fine required for reinstatement, according to an Agence France-Presse report, and OAR athletes reportedly brought their banned uniforms to Pyeongchang.
That puts the IOC in a tough position. Russia is one of the IOC’s most powerful national committees and also its most flagrant rule-breaker. Before the IOC makes its decision, it will review a report on the behavior of Russian athletes and officials at the games, including Krushelnitckii’s ban and Elistratov’s comments.
That hasn’t stopped fans in Pyeongchang, just a two-and-a-half hour flight from the Russian port city of Vladivostok. Among a boisterous contingent of Russians, many agree with Peryshkov. “The burden [of the ban] will make our country stronger, it will give us new power,” said Marina Gaidadina, a professional dancer taking in the games. “You can take our flag and our name, but you don’t take our soul.”
Nearby, Russians gathered to mingle, snack and watch the games at the “Sports House” -- a three-story wedding hall that’s become the delegation’s unofficial headquarters. Stripped of its official status, Russia is walking a thin line: While the word Russia doesn’t appear in the facility’s logo, the paraphernalia is unmistakable, from the giant nesting dolls to a framed photo of Putin shaking hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Liga Stavok, a Russian sports betting platform, was the primary sponsor of the venue; a manager of the venue said the country’s “hockey association” took over after the Russian Olympic Committee was banned. The New York Times reported the house was also supported by the Russian Olympians Foundation, whose council of trustees include Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko (who was banned from the Olympics as part of the IOC ruling).
The biggest impact of the Russian ban may be reflected in the medal table. The country won 29 medals (11 gold) in Sochi, more than any other country. Russia enters the final two days in Pyeongchang with just 14 medals, its lone gold coming yesterday in women’s figure skating.
“Everyone in Russia waited for this medal,” said Verigina Alona, a 41-year-old Russian teacher who watched the event at the Sports House. “Being without a flag may be discouraging, but no, we’re strong people, and we are very proud.”
— With assistance by Maria Kolesnikova