Russia throws flamboyant Olympic party despite scandals

GANGNEUNG, South Korea — With flags, patriotic tunes and a troupe of cheerleaders, Russia wants to throw the biggest party at the Pyeongchang Olympics.

Never mind that Russia's team must compete in neutral uniforms. Never mind that 45 Russian athletes were excluded from the games early Friday. In the Sports House on the Gangneung seafront, the doping scandals never happened.

The house opened Friday afternoon with rousing speeches from Russia's ambassador to South Korea and former Olympic champions. For them, Russia is now and forever a sports superpower.

"Russia is a full participant in the Olympic Games and Russia can show its sporting power," ambassador Alexander Timonin said. "We believe in our athletes, we are proud of them, and we hope that they can achieve their very best sporting results and bring glory to our great motherland."

The "Sports House" name may be bland, but it's definitely Russian inside. There is a traditional samovar of tea, a folk choir, even the dress in which figure skater Adelina Sotnikova won the gold medal in Sochi in 2014. One side of the hall is adorned with photographs of President Vladimir Putin meeting South Korean dignitaries.

Olympic champions of decades past sat in a VIP zone upstairs, overlooking a hall where Russian fans — and some local Russophiles — mingled around a buffet.

"It's great because there's a place where they're always waiting for you, where they're always happy to see you," said Dmitry Davydov, a fan from St. Petersburg who was wrapped in the national flag. "It's a little corner of Russia far from home."

Davydov arrived fresh from watching the officially-neutral "Olympic Athletes from Russia" compete in figure skating.

"My hands are red with clapping and I'm losing my voice," he said.

When Russian sports officials first rented the cavernous Aqua Wedding Hall for the Pyeongchang Olympics, they wanted to brand it the Russian Fans' House. Then the International Olympic Committee banned the Russian team from the games for doping, inviting only selected athletes to compete as neutral Olympians.

Russian officials flirted with hosting their own medal ceremonies for athletes in the house, but feared it could provoke the wrath of the IOC.

They considered rebranding as the Red Machine House in tribute to great Soviet hockey teams of the Cold War era, but settled on the blander Sports House, run by a Russian sports development fund best known for regularly gifting luxury cars to Olympic medalists in Kremlin ceremonies.

There were no current Russian Olympians at the opening — 168 will compete in Pyeongchang — but organizers plan to host any medalists later for media events. The IOC didn't respond when asked if that complies with its rules.

For Tatiana Volosozhar, a figure skater who won gold for Russia in 2014, the house should be a beacon of hope for Russian athletes in tough circumstances.

"Everything's very joyful, though the events this morning weren't joyful for some Olympians," Volosozhar said. "But our athletes are here to compete and they have to win."

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More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org

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