PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA – Alex is 33 and lives in Russia. He politely refuses to give his last name. His friend Vitaly is 36 and prefers to keep his name private, too.
How do people know Alex is from Russia? He's wearing a baseball hat that says "Love Russia," an Alex Ovechkin jersey and waving a giant Russian flag.
Vitaly is similarly dressed, except his hat says "All U Need Is Russia." He's waving a giant flag, too.
The two friends are strolling through Olympic Park outside the Gangneung Hockey Center on Friday afternoon. They are asked how they feel about Russia technically being banned from these Olympics. "It is politics, not sports," Alex says. "That's all we can say about it."
Just then, a couple from South Korea stops to take a selfie with them. The Russians happily oblige. "[Everybody] has been pretty friendly," Alex says. "Most of fans from other countries root for us. We don't feel any problems."
He takes out his phone to offer proof. He scrolls to a photo of him and Vitaly holding their flags and smiling while standing next to group of beaming Americans holding Old Glory.
"American guys, we feel friendship," Alex says.
These are strange Olympics.
Russian fans arrived in full force this week to support athletes who can't wear official Russian uniforms, or wave Russian flags, or hear the Russian national anthem from the podium if they win a gold medal.
Technically, Russia isn't here. It was banned by the International Olympic Committee as punishment for what the IOC called a systematic government-sponsored doping scheme at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
However, 168 Russian athletes were allowed to participate after proving they were clean. Those athletes compete as Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR), which scores low marks for originality.
The OARs wore neutral colors and marched under the Olympic flag at the Opening Ceremony. Occasionally, they forget what they're allowed to call themselves.
"Here, the team that is playing is called — well, you know, I'm not allowed to say the word," men's hockey player Sergei Shirokov said.
His teammate Ilya Kovalchuk told reporters that he won't take photos with fans who are holding the Russian flag because he doesn't want to step outside the IOC's sanctions.
This whole situation is odd.
Russia is being punished and some of the country's best athletes are prohibited from competing. But the OARs have performed reasonably well so far in front of large, boisterous cheering sections who chant, sing and wave Russian flags.
The Russian athletes had won seven medals as of Friday (no golds) and its men's hockey team is considered the favorite to win that marquee event.
The sanctions imposed by the IOC didn't deter Russian fans from attending the Olympics, or dampen their spirits. If anything, the fans seem inspired by their "us-against-the-IOC-and-world" position.
"It's a very happy feeling that our fans will come here to support us, that they didn't give up on us, that they didn't abandon us in difficult times," freestyle skier Maxim Burov said.
The Russians were determined to have a strong performance in 2014 with the Olympics in their backyard, which reportedly cost the country $50 billion to host.
An investigation afterward uncovered an elaborate doping scheme so grand in scope that the IOC issued the punishment.
Still, the party is in full swing here as Russian fans pack events and chant "Ro-see-ya! Ro-see-ya!" On the first day of curling, a man wearing a fake white beard down to his waist handed out miniature Russian flags to Korean kids in the stands and taught them Russian cheers.
The kids seemed shy at first. Before long, they were chanting along with him.
Chip Scoggins • 612-673-4484