The president of Russia’s Cross-Country Skiing Federation says that while Russian athletes banned from the 2018 Winter Games will have a chance to compete in alternative tournaments, they will miss the Olympic atmosphere.
“It’s not the same as going to the Olympics, feeling its atmosphere and that special feeling of exhilaration from winning the Games, but we will try our best to organize a competitive tournament for those who were unfairly deprived of that chance,” said Yelena Valbe.
Valbe – a triple Olympic champion and the winner of a then-record 14 gold medals at the World Ski Championships – is one of the most successful female skiers of the 20th century.
Russian fans were pinning their PyeongСhang Olympic hopes on skiers, especially Sergey Ustiugov, the reigning world champion. With Ustiugov – along with biathlete Anton Shipulin and speed skater Viktor Ahn – not invited to participate by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Russian fans feel it was nothing but politics at play in the decision.
That opinion was shared by many of Valbe’s international colleagues, who were last Sunday at the FIS World Cup race in Seefeld, Austria – the last such meet-up before the Olympics.
“Elena, what the hell’s going on? They can’t do that to you guys!” was the typical greeting she received at the ski stadium’s zone reserved for coaches and officials, as dozens of athletes glided past.
Such an outpouring of support from within the community – although it should be noted not everyone showed solidarity with the Russians, including some who looked away upon seeing Valbe, despite her being well known to them – was reassuring to the federation chief.
“We are planning to invite not just strong international athletes to our competitions, but those real stars who everybody knows and recognizes instantly,” she said.
Valbe was apparently hinting at arguably the most popular skier in the world, Petter Northug, who did not make the Norwegian team selection for the Games. Northug, known equally for his fiery style on the ski tracks and his antics off them, is hugely popular in Russia. To see him compete against Ustiugov would draw huge crowds of eager fans.
It wouldn’t all be for the love of the fans though. Valbe says that the prizes for the winners of alternative competitions would be equal to those a Russian athlete would be entitled to for actually winning gold at the Olympic Games: 4 million rubles (US$ 71,000) – a huge sum in a sport where international race winners normally get about a fifth of that amount.