Tomorrow is the day! On January 25th, the Russian Hockey Federation will reveal the final rosters for the both the men’s and the women’s teams at the Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. However, due to the entire situation with the doping allegations from the 2014 Games in Sochi, this has been a more complicated run-up to the Games than normal. As I am sure you have already heard, Russian athletes will compete officially as “Olympic Athletes from Russia,” the country’s flag and anthem will be absent, and so on and so forth. And there have been some added steps, and added intrigue, involved in selecting the country’s two hockey teams as well. Read on!
Basically, the way the Russian Olympic selection process has gone this time has been as follows: per the IOC’s decision in early December, Russian athletes chosen for the Olympics by their sports’ respective national bodies must also be approved by the IOC, based on a number of criteria which have not been made public (at least they have not fully been made public — the criteria are believed to include the athlete having no previous history of doping and having passed recent drug tests). The Russian Olympic Committee submits a “master list” of candidate athletes, the IOC checks the list and invites those athletes it deems admissable, and the final team is then selected from among those.
And that brings us to the matter of tomorrow’s roster announcements, as five players from the master list of candidates for the men’s Olympic hockey team have been refused permission to play by the IOC. They are: defencemen Anton Belov, Mikhail Naumenkov, and Alexei Bereglazov along with forwards Valery Nichushkin and Sergei Plotnikov. But so far, there has been no reason given for their exclusion, and it appears that even the Russian Hockey Federation is in the dark about it.
We can take a bit of a guess about Belov and Plotnikov; both have tested positive for PEDs in the past, Belov in 2012 and Plotnikov during the 2016-17 season. That may well have been enough, in the IOC’s view, to rule out both of them. Nichushkin and Belov both were part of the team at the 2014 Olympics, but so were a number of other Russian players whom the Olympic Committee has invited to the 2018 Games — besides which, no accusations of doping at Sochi have been made towards anyone from the men’s team. So, something of a mystery here.
In any case, the Russian Hockey Federation noted today that of the men’s team players who been excluded by the IOC, only Plotnikov was receiving serious consideration for the final roster. The 27-year-old has often been among SKA St. Petersburg’s top-six forwards this season, posting career bests in goals, assists, and points with a line of 53 gp, 16-22-38). We may wonder a little bit about why Belov and particularly Nichushkin were not being considered for the team, although in fairness Belov did miss two months with injury earlier this season. Naumenkov and Bereglazov are good players both, but probably not yet of the calibre to be among the first choices for an Olympic team.
For the Russian women’s national team, there was good and bad news today. The good news, first of all, was the confirmation that the team will indeed take part in the 2018 Olympic Games! That had been in at least some doubt ever since the Oswald Commission suspended eight members of the 2014 women’s Olympic squad for life back in early December. The women’s team has been in the Khabarovsk, in Russia’s Far East, for the past few days at a pre-Olympic training camp, and will head to South Korea on February 4th.
However, there was also some controversy for the women’s team today, and as with their male counterparts, it has to do with players left off the IOC’s invitation list. The Olympic Committee “declined to invite” four players from the women’s squad’s master list: forwards Lyudmila Belyakova and Inna Dyubanok, defender Anna Shibanova, and finally Galina Skiba, who plays both positions.
In the cases of Dyubanok, Shibanova, and Skiba, the reason for their exclusion from the 2018 Games is obvious: they are among the eight players suspended by the Oswald Commission. The FHR submitted their names for the upcoming Olympics simply because their appeals of Oswald’s decision have not yet been heard by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (those hearings should happen this week).
However, Belyakova’s exclusion is a real puzzle. She has no record whatsoever, even by rumour, of doping offences, and was not part of the 2014 team (and again, by all reports, some of the Sochi women’s squad have been permitted to go to the 2018 Games by the IOC). As with the exluded male players, the FHR is making enquiries of the Olympic Committee as to Belyakova’s status. In the meantime, former national team coach Mikhail Chekanov, who is now the FHR’s Presidential Advisor on Women’s Hockey, was scathing today when asked to comment on the situation:
“It is a mystery to me why the IOC did not invite Belyakova, particularly since she was not at the Olympics in Sochi. This is complete nonsense; when they do not admit an athlete, without explaining the reason, there should be clarification. They eliminate players who can have an impact — so, probably, they are trying to influence the final result of the team’s performance, or of individual athletes’ performances, at the Games. I have no other explanation.”
Belyakova’s absence would indeed be a blow to Russia’s hopes at these Olympics. The 23-year-old forward is currently fifth in goals in the Women’s Hockey League, and tied for ninth in points, with a line of 12 gp, 9-3-12. With the national team, she has lately been a key part of a potent line alongside Olga Sosina and Valeriya Pavlova.
So, to tomorrow! It will be quite fascinating to see who is chosen for each of the teams, and I will post the rosters here at some point tomorrow, along with a few thoughts. I should point out, too, that not all of the intrigue revolves around the situation with the Oswald Commission and the IOC. Among the questions we wait to have answered: will the great Sergei Mozyakin, so inexplicably left off the 2014 team, be a member of the 2018 squad? All will be revealed tomorrow.
Thank you for reading!