Its location isn’t a secret, and neither are its ties to Russia – but a visitor can be forgiven for feeling a bit surreptitious on arriving at the Sports House, a party hall for Russian Olympic fans to meet at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
After all, the Russian Olympic Committee is in the doghouse. It was suspended in December, and dozens of its athletes are banned. It had also been widely reported before the Olympics that Russia wouldn’t be among the dozen or so countries to open a hospitality venue during the Games.
So we were a bit surprised when we found the Russian Olympic movement had turned a doghouse into a Sports House.
Part of the reason for the undercover vibe is the location: The Sports House is located on a side street just feet away from a beachfront lane in Gangneung that runs along the coast of the Sea of Japan. With many of the Olympic events in South Korea centered in Pyeongchang, this location feels as if it’s as far removed as possible from the eyes of Olympics officials.
That’s not to say the Sports House is trying to hide. It’s painted a striking shade of red, after all. And then there are are the huge, grinning matryoshka figures towering over the entrance. Without saying the word “Russia,” the imagery screams “RUSSIA!”
Once inside, there’s virtually no sign that the Russia’s Olympic committee is being punished more severely than any committee has ever been by the International Olympic Committee.
At these Olympics, Russian athletes don’t compete under their own flag; they’re banned from flying their colors and other signals of national pride and identity. The Sports House offers a salve to that awkward situation, with exhibits on Russia’s past Olympic successes. On its walls there’s an upbeat message: “Russian in My Heart.”
Unlike some international houses, the Russian house doesn’t charge an entrance fee or require an advance registration. Our experience there was similar to other hospitality houses in Pyeongchang: We were greeted warmly and cultural items were pointed out, as live events played out on TVs.
At earlier Winter Olympics, editions of the Russia House – particularly in Sochi, but also in Vancouver, where Russia began celebrating its hosting of the 2014 Games — have been famous for the mass consumption of vodka that took place on the premises. But not in South Korea: “No alcohol,” a man at the door tells me as he searches my bag.
At first, I think maybe he’s asking if I’m smuggling booze, but then I realize that he’s giving me a chance to bail — and maybe save him the trouble of searching through my gear.
The Sports House is in a converted wedding hall called Aqua. A sign out front promises tea from a samovar, and a traditional cake made in Tula, an industrial center south of Moscow.
Visitors to the Sports House head through a security barrier and past a “Wish Wall” crowded with handwritten thoughts for the athletes competing in South Korea. Upstairs, they walk through double doors and into the main hall, an open space ringed by a balcony level. Looming on the opposite wall is a massive TV screen that shows live events featuring Russian athletes.
And, propped against a wall, we see that the cake mentioned outside – a treat called pryanik – is a massive rectangle, about four feet long. Part of what makes these spice cakes special is the imagery imprinted on them; this one has a hockey player. The hope, I’m told, is that it might be cut on the day of the gold medal match, this Sunday.
The main space is full of rows of cozy, low-riding lounge chairs. And they, in turn, are full of people who seem laser-focused on the doings of the Russian hockey squad – who, I notice, are busy obliterating the U.S. team. Loud cheers erupt at each score; so do chants of “Russia!”
On the edges of the room, there are parents and children, and people who simply can’t fit into the central space. There’s a face-painting station (to invoke the Russian white, blue and red, naturally); there’s also a crafts table and a tabletop air hockey game.
I had heard that the space wouldn’t be able to host any athletes from the Russian team – officially known during these games as “Olympic Athletes from Russia,” as part of the IOC’s mandate. But a staff member tells me that Russian athletes “usually come after their competition,” just as Olympians do at other international houses.
Once the OAR team finished its rout of the Americans on the big screen, there were smiles and high-fives. Almost immediately, the house PA system cranked the Nirvana song “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and the kids working behind the snack counter started dancing around, singing along.
I asked a member of the Sports House staff, Dmitry Zubarev, how the Russian fans are responding to the team at this Olympics — a question I asked in the journalistic tradition of confirming what’s in front of one’s face.
“The vast majority of the people who visit this event,” Zubarev said, “they’ve been waiting for the whole Olympics just for the ice hockey, just because it’s such a big deal in Russia – and our team is the best.
“That’s what we think,” he said with a smile.
Coming off their country’s success at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, many Russian athletes remain under the cloud of suspicion over doping. This week came word that curler Aleksandr Krushelnitckii, one of the 168 Russians who came to Pyeongchang after being declared clean to compete, failed a doping test. He’s now been stripped of his bronze medal.
The lingering suspicions, the athletes’ restrictions, the lifetime bans from competition, the suspension of the national committee: All of those factors might seem like reasons to tamp down the celebrations, to be mindful of the punishments and responsibilities this team is saddled with.
But this is Russia, a country that’s adept at pursuing its own message — and one, like many others, that enjoys being proud of its Olympians.
Still, all those circumstances can produce some unique juxtapositions when they’re crammed into one place.
A Russian journalist we spoke with after our visit said the Sports House held its grand opening party on the same day that 15 Russians saw their appeal to participate in Pyeongchang rejected by an Olympics review panel, despite a Court of Arbitration for Sport decision that seemed to favor them.
The panel said the court’s process did not “lift the suspicion of doping” or give any reason to believe the athletes were clean.
“There is nothing to celebrate,” the journalist told me. “I was surprised.”