COC unable to shift attention from doping cloud around Pyeongchang

In an alleged 'incident' with Russian athletes in the cafeteria at the Winter Olympics, the COC did the most Canadian thing to resolve the altercation.

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – It may have been a Canadian in the cafeteria with a Russian, and offensive words might have been exchanged – possibly.

On the eve of the official start of the Olympic Games, the Canadian Olympic Committee predictably dodged questions around how many medals they’re expecting from this team, and the press conference they hoped would focus on their athletes instead shifted to doping and news of an altercation that reportedly happened earlier this week.

On the latter point, the details are clear as mud. A Canadian (coach, athlete, support staff?) may have had a verbal altercation with a Russian (coach, athlete, support staff?) in a cafeteria here on Monday. Non-niceties might have been exchanged. At this point, it sounds like we’re all involved in a game of Clue.

And, of course, most importantly and classically Canadian: We apologized.

As the COC’s executive director of sport, Eric Myles, put it: “We say, ‘Hey, if something happened, we’re sorry.’”

“Honestly, we don’t have much more detail,” added Myles. “It’s an emotional time. There’s a lot of action going on internationally with all this situation. When we heard about this situation, and honestly, it’s not clear. We didn’t have, like, I don’t know. Is it coach, athlete, was it really a Canadian? Honestly, we don’t know that.”

The fact something might have happened between a Canadian and a Russian came to light earlier in the day during a briefing with the head of the Olympic Athletes of Russia (OAR).

“We never had the full information, so we took it seriously,” Myles said, which really makes no sense. “We took a note to our team to say we didn’t want to get into a situation. … This morning our team representative connected with the other team and everything is good.”

OK, that’s far from clear. What we do know for certain, though, is that on Friday night, the Games will officially begin, and most of Canada’s 225 athletes will march in the Opening Ceremony.

Exciting as it is, there’s a cloud over these Olympics, because after evidence of a state-sponsored doping program in the lead-up to the 2014 Games in Sochi, there are still 169 Russian athletes here. Sure, they’re competing with no flag and as Olympic Athletes from Russia, but they’re here, all the same.

Earlier this month, 28 Russian athletes accused of doping had their results from the 2014 Games reinstated due to what the Court of Arbitration for Sport decided was insufficient evidence.

COC president Tricia Smith, a former rower who won a silver medal at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, urged everyone present to focus on Canada’s athletes and their achievements, to focus on “the strongest, most well-prepared Olympic team Canada’s ever sent to a Winter Games.”

It is, too. Canada won 27 medals at the last round of world championships, and 45 Canadians finished in the top five. Canada’s best-ever finish came in Vancouver, with 26 medals, and Smith said “we expect our athletes, our team, to do as well as we’ve ever done,” which means a minimum 27 medals hanging around Canadian necks by the end of these Games.

She nails it when it comes to inspiration, and she did address doping in her prepared written remarks, but Smith’s urge to focus on the competition ahead for Canada’s athletes didn’t work. By the end of the press conference, you’d forgotten all about bobsledder Cam Stones, who was at the press conference.

That big doping cloud still rules the discussion.

“I can only say, look, we’re in this difficult position now because we’re catching athletes who are doping,” Smith said. “That’s the big thing: That we’re catching it. When I was competing, we didn’t catch anyone. I remember there was one who got caught, and everyone in the world knew about it. But you know, it’s very uncomfortable. It’s not where we wanna be in sport, but we’re catching people who are cheating now.”

We also might be having stern words for Russians who are still competing here, if we think they got away with cheating – and then apologizing for it, in case we ruffled any feathers.

Let the Games begin.

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