Canadian hockey players wear masks, hinting at distrust of Russia

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BEIJING – Concern is most evident in the masks, those suddenly worn on the benches, by the referees and, remarkably, by the women playing Olympic hockey.

The Beijing Games, overshadowed by rhetoric about sportsmanship and shared values ​​and unity at last week’s opening ceremony, suddenly turned to suspicion on Monday as uncertainty over testing the Russian coronavirus team led to a 65-minute delay in the match against Canada. . . When the game finally began after a Canadian player was removed from her team for what her coach described as an unconvincing test, she did so under a health measure rare during an elite race: each player wore a mask.

The episode, which the International Ice Hockey Federation officially attributed to “safety and security concerns”, was also a glimmer of enduring Western skepticism about Russia’s Olympic apparatus with a long history of bending or breaking the rules.

Although Canadian officials avoided accusing their Russian counterparts of any misconduct, they had cause for concern: the Russian team spent part of last week in quarantine after a series of positive tests among team members.

“We wanted to make sure everyone involved was healthy and we were sure we were reducing the risk, so we just decided to wear a mask and postpone the game just a little bit so we could get organized and just put on masks and it would be safe, “said Rebecca Johnston, a Canadian striker. Asked if the Canadians feared active involvement in the Russian team, she said: “I don’t think we were sure what was going on.”

Sports leagues around the world insist that viral transmission is unlikely during competitions, and cases directly related to games are considered rare. And yet, with strict health protocols in place during the Games, where authorities imposed a so-called bubble to block Olympic participants from Chinese society, Canadians don’t seem to see much room for potential mistakes, especially for a team that expects to fight for the gold medal.

There were indications that the Russian team remained affected by the virus. The players were absent from the bench, and Alexandra Vafina, a Russian striker, suggested that the team remain subject to the Olympic protocols for close contacts, which include testing twice a day.

The team, Vafina said, “is trying to follow all these strict rules and prevent the spread of the disease.” Another player, Anna Shibanova, suggested that the lab delays may have contributed to the delayed arrival of the team’s latest test results, which arrived after the game began.

Evgeni Bobariko, the Russian coach, said he had been told that the Canadian team had asked both teams to wear masks. He added that he did not feel a “shadow of mistrust”.

But the caution of Russian teams for one reason or another is now an Olympic ritual, with doubts and fears commonplace because of Russia’s long-standing dependence on a complex, state-sponsored doping operation. In 2019, the World Anti-Doping Agency banned Russia from participating in international competitions for four years – arbitrators later reduced the sentence to a largely symbolic two years – although warnings still allow Russian athletes to compete in the Games and other major events. .

Monday’s turmoil spilled over into public space as the Canadian team did not leave its locker room to start the match on schedule. The Russian team, waiting on their bench and apparently ready to play, finally returned to their locker room.

The teams only showed up after reaching what seemed like a fragile, unusual compromise: the athletes wore masks even during the game.

This plan ended at the beginning of the third period, when the Russians returned to the ice of the Wukesong Sports Center without face covers. Natalie Spooner of Canada said she had been told that the Russian team’s test results had returned negative. Canada led 4-1 at the time, but the team chose to remain disguised.

“It was as simple as” We wore it for 40, let’s wear it for the extra 20, “said Troy Ryan, Canada’s coach. “If health and safety are an issue, it’s not just a switch.”

Disappointment and mistrust, however, were clearly going in both directions. In a tweet that included emojis of the monkey covering her eyes, the Russian Olympic Committee called the Canadians later in the day for the status of Emily Clark, the player who was withdrawn from the squad. A Russian television station has accused the ice hockey federation, which administers the Olympic tournament, of “unilaterally” changing pre-match testing procedures on Monday.

A spokesman said the international federation “has not changed any of the test protocols during the tournament”. IN separate statementThe federation said the match was postponed “in order to ensure a full understanding of the teams on health and safety measures”.

The outcome of Monday’s match – once it was clear it would happen – was never in serious doubt. Canada dominated the game and beat the Russian team 6-1. It was the second straight loss for the Russians, who lost to the United States 5-0 on Saturday.

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