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Avoiding penalties off the ice: Olympic athletes can’t even say ‘Team Russia’

Sergei Shirokov of Olympic Athletes from Russia controls the puck against Slovakia during the men's ice hockey preliminary-round game during on Feb. 14, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Russian hockey player Sergei Shirokov, a smooth skater on the ice, found himself tripping over his words this week, and all he was trying to do was say the name of his team.

Asked about the mix of players on Russia's Olympic hockey squad that are drawn from Kontinental Hockey League powerhouses CSKA Moscow and SKA Saint Petersburg, Shirokov said he didn't think the rivalry would affect their cohesion on the ice.

"It's not SKA and CSKA playing," Shirokov said. "Here, the team that is playing is called – well, you know – I'm not allowed to say the word."

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Such is life for Russian athletes, who are not allowed to self-identify as Team Russia. Any player who does risks being sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee.

It is part of the punishment the IOC has given the country for running a widespread doping campaign at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Athletes who were caught weren't allowed to come to Pyeongchang. Those cleared to participate, such as the hockey players, can't call themselves Team Russia.

It's affected everything from how the team talks to how it looks.

When Russia took the ice for its first game on Wednesday – a surprising 3-2 loss to a less-talented, more-organized team from Slovakia – they debuted their new IOC-imposed uniforms.

They were, at first glance, an Olympic version of a beer-league jersey.

The uniforms were red and white, but any similarities to the intimidating CCCP sweaters worn during the glory days of Soviet hockey ended there. Nor did they have the flair of the double-headed eagle that has symbolized Russian hockey's modern era.

Instead, the front of the jersey stated each player's number, surrounded by the phrase "Olympic Athlete from Russia." Even the lettering was subject to strict IOC guidelines, where "Russia" could be no larger than any of the other words. The jerseys could only employ two colours, and the tone could not match the Russian flag.

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Despite having what is widely considered the most talented team at the Olympics, the new look did little to strike fear into the Slovakian side, who blocked shots, killed penalties and generally lulled Russia's highly touted offence into a slumber by the second period.

"Well, we lost, I think it's crystal clear. What is there to say?" an unhappy Russian coach Oleg Znarok said.

"Our power play was bad," assistant captain Ilya Kovalchuk added. "They scored a goal on the power play, we didn't. That was the difference."

Asked what he thought of the uniforms, Kovalchuk suddenly became less colourful than the jerseys themselves. "Nice. I like it," he said flatly, clearly wanting to talk about anything else.

"I don't want to touch that subject," Znarok said.

In defiance of the IOC-imposed uniforms, Team Russia's fans carried on as though nothing was different. Hundreds of them waved Russian flags, wore Team Russia jerseys from past Olympics and chanted the country's name right up until the moment Slovakia left with the win.

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If Shirokov felt he was being watched when he stumbled on his words, though, perhaps the 31-year-old winger had reason to suspect as much.

In addition to publishing a list of conduct guidelines, the IOC has warned that a special "task force" will monitor Russian athletes to ensure none of those guidelines are being flouted and "will provide a complete report to the IOC Executive Board."

It's unclear what a slip of the tongue would have cost Shirokov. The IOC's conduct memo says only that an athlete could, potentially, lose their ability to compete.

"Failure of a member of the OAR [Olympic Athletes from Russia] to comply with existing rules or these guidelines may lead to an OAR invitation being revoked and/or the withdrawal of accreditation," the guidelines say.

But if Russia's first game against Slovakia showed anything – beyond the realization that its tepid power play needs work – it's that Shirokov isn't alone.

Others are also confused about what to call the team.

In the third period, when Russian forward Ivan Telegin was assessed a delay-of-game penalty, even the referee stumbled when trying to announce it over the public-address system.

"Russia – sorry – White! Two minutes for delay of game," the official said, quickly correcting his mistake.

Two of North Korea's most senior officials were sat directly behind South Korea's president during the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Games, which have provided some respite from the tense relations between the two countries. Reuters
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