Ilya Kovalchuk worried fan selfies with Russian flag will break IOC rules

Russian fans loud and proud at Olympic events, wrapped in flags and chanting

Ilya Kovalchuk worried fan selfies with Russian flag will break IOC rules
Slovakia's Tomas Marcinko (L) vies with Ilya Kovalchuk of the Olympic Athletes from Russia in men's preliminary round ice hockey action at the Gangneung Hockey Centre during the 2018 Olympic winter games. © Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

By James Ellingworth, The Associated Press

Ilya Kovalchuk has a rule for any fans wanting an Olympic selfie — put the Russian flag away.

The forward for the Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR) hockey team is worried about breaking International Olympic Committee (IOC) sanctions imposed on Russia after its Sochi doping scandal. Athletes compete in neutral uniforms and have to sign a document saying they won't protest the ruling that turned Team Russia into OAR.

"We won't chase [fans] away" if they're carrying Russian flags, Kovalchuk said Tuesday. "If there's an IOC rule then we'll talk to them, explain it and take a photograph without the flag."

In the stands, though, Russian fans can be as patriotic as they like.

They've been a loud and proud presence at events like hockey, biathlon and figure skating, wrapped in flags and chanting in Russian. Many say they want to dress up to compensate for their athletes' drab neutral uniforms.

The fans made the half-full Gangneung Hockey Centre ring with chants during the Russian hockey team's opening game against Slovakia on Wednesday but were left disappointed in defeat.

VIDEO | Slovakia upsets tournament favourites Olympic Athletes from Russia

A line of Russian women danced with pompoms, a Soviet flag flew and South Koreans lined up for selfies with a man dressed in a bear costume. "Russia is a big country and a great power," read the inscription on one Russian flag.

"We're shouting so much that our voices are going," said a fan who identified himself only as Andrei. "We're just devoting ourselves to it and supporting our athletes, because there's not so many people here from our country."

Many fans wore replicas of the Olympic uniform Russians had been due to wear before the IOC punishment came down in December.

Andrei Savinov, a 53-year-old from Moscow who deals in wood, hunted for souvenirs at the Olympic Park with his wife, both decked out in Russian uniforms from the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

"We bought the uniform specially so that Russianness is at least visible somehow," said Savinov. The couple bought Olympic tickets hoping to see Russian medals in the speed skating, but top skaters Denis Yuskov and Pavel Kulizhnikov were banned by the IOC.

"Yuskov and Kulizhnikov were important. They were real gold medals," said Savinov, who's now planning to watch hockey and looking for spare tickets to other events.

With some of the best Russians at home, many Pyeongchang winners aren't real champions, his wife Olga Savinova argued.

"I think it reduces the level of competition," she said. "They won't feel like real, absolute winners. It's sporting competition, a festival, and people had been preparing for it all their lives."

Their opinions are echoed by the Russian government, including President Vladimir Putin, who presents Russian doping scandals as a U.S.-led attempt to weaken an Olympic rival.