GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) - It had taken until two days before the end of the Winter Olympics, but hundreds of Russian fans roared in celebration when teenage figure skater Alina Zagitova delivered their team’s first gold medal on Friday.
For fans who had travelled from across the vast country, the Russian one-two, with Evgenia Medvedeva taking the silver, was the highlight of an Olympics where many believe their countrymen have suffered injustice and even humiliation.
“We were so rooting for Alinochka and Zheniechka,” enthused a woman named Yulia from the Kuzbass region of Siberia, using affectionate diminutive forms of the two skaters’ names.
“They were brilliant, they didn’t let us down. First and second place: it’s super, it’s a dream.”
Her husband Vyacheslav was celebrating too, but with reservations.
“We were waiting a very long time and we were punished unfairly,” he said, reeling off the names of top stars who were barred from coming to South Korea.
The exclusions were the result of investigations by the International Olympic Committee that found Russia had run a huge state-sponsored doping programme when it hosted the Winter Games in 2014.
Russia denies systematic cheating but says it is cleaning up its act, arguing that doping is a much wider international problem.
As a further punishment, Russians competing in South Korea have been designated as neutral ‘Olympic Athletes from Russia’ and barred from using their own flag or anthem.
But that did not constrain the supporters who held up dozens of huge Russian tricolours all round the Gangneung Ice Arena before and after Zagitova and Medvedeva had skated.
“Brilliant, we waited for this. We were hopeful, we had two great girls but we didn’t know who would be first. We were just nervous about which of them would get gold,” said Pyotr Afanaskov from Vladivostok, wearing a hat with the slogan ‘Russia in my heart’.
“I feel a bit sorry for (Medvedeva), of course, but that’s sport.”
The doping controversy and its consequences have been deeply felt by many Russians, with their country having always excelled at the Olympics and sport being used as a source of pride and prestige.
“Of course all the Russian fans are delighted, especially as it came in clean competition,” said Sergei Vinogradov from St Petersburg after watching the finale of the figure skating.
Yet almost in the same breath, he added: “Of course for Russians it’s very unpleasant one country was singled out and treated like that... We all feel that it’s not fair.”
For Viktor Ivchenko of Vladivostok, the ban on playing the national anthem was “a violation and a kind of insult”.
But, along with several others interviewed, he was hopeful that Russia would be back at the next Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020 as a full participant.
“I think there is a kind of justice and reason that will triumph,” he said.
Editing by Sudipto Ganguly