BEIJING — The concern manifested most obviously in the masks, the ones suddenly worn on the benches, by the referees and, remarkably, by the women playing Olympic hockey.
The Beijing Games, cloaked in rhetoric about sportsmanship and shared values and unity at last week’s opening ceremony, veered abruptly into an exhibition of suspicion on Monday, when uncertainty over the Russian team’s coronavirus testing led to a 65-minute delay of a game against Canada. When the game finally began, after a Canadian player was pulled from her team’s lineup because of what her coach characterized as an inconclusive test, it did so under a health precaution rarely seen during elite competition: Every player was wearing a mask.
The episode, which the International Ice Hockey Federation formally attributed to “safety and security concerns,” was also a glimpse into lingering Western skepticism of a Russian Olympic apparatus with a long record of bending or breaking rules.
Although Canadian officials avoided accusing their Russian counterparts of any misconduct, they had reason for concern: The Russian squad spent part of last week in quarantine after a series of positive tests among team members.
“We wanted to make sure that everyone that was participating was healthy and making sure we’re lowering the risk, so we just decided to wear a mask and delay the game just a little bit so that we could get organized and just put masks on and it’d be safe,” said Rebecca Johnston, a Canadian forward. Asked if the Canadians had feared active cases on the Russian team, she replied, “I think we weren’t sure what was going on.”
Sports leagues around the world insist that viral transmission is unlikely during competitions, and cases directly linked to games are thought to be rare. Still, with stringent health protocols in effect at the Games, where the authorities have imposed a so-called bubble to wall off Olympic participants from Chinese society, the Canadians seemingly saw little room for potential error, especially for a team that is expected to contend for the gold medal.
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There were indications that the Russian team remained affected by the virus. Players were missing from its bench, and Alexandra Vafina, a Russian forward, suggested that the team remained subject to the Olympic protocols for close contacts, which include being tested twice a day.
The team, Vafina said, was “trying to follow all those strict rules and prevent any spread of disease.” Another player, Anna Shibanova, suggested laboratory delays might have contributed to the delayed arrival of the team’s latest test results, which arrived after the game had begun.
Yevgeni Bobariko, the Russian coach, said he was told that the Canadian team asked for both teams to wear masks. He added that he didn’t sense a “shadow of mistrust.”
But wariness of Russian teams for one reason or another is now effectively an Olympic rite, with doubts and misgivings commonplace because of Russia’s yearslong reliance on a sophisticated, state-orchestrated doping operation. In 2019, the World Anti-Doping Agency handed Russia a four-year ban from international competition — arbitrators later reduced the penalty to a largely symbolic two years — though caveats have still allowed Russian athletes to compete at the Games and other major events.
Monday’s turmoil spilled into public view when the Canadian team did not leave its dressing room to start the game as planned. The Russian team, waiting on its bench and apparently poised to play, eventually returned to its locker room.
The teams emerged only once they reached what appeared to be a fragile, unusual compromise: The athletes would wear masks, even during play.
That plan came to an end at the start of the third period, when the Russians returned to the Wukesong Sports Center ice without face coverings. Natalie Spooner of Canada said she had been told that the Russian team’s test results had come back as negative. Canada led by 4-1 at the time, but the team elected to remain masked.
“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 is a concern, it doesn’t just switch.”
Frustration and mistrust, though, apparently went both ways. In a tweet that included an emoji of a monkey covering its eyes, the Russian Olympic Committee needled the Canadians later in the day over the status of Emily Clark, the player who was pulled from the lineup. And a Russian television station accused the ice hockey federation, which administers the Olympic tournament, of “unilaterally” altering testing procedures ahead of Monday’s game.
A spokesman said the international federation “did not change any of the testing protocols during the tournament.” In a separate statement, the federation said the game had been delayed “with a view to ensure full understanding of the teams about the health and safety measures in place.”
The outcome of Monday’s game — once it was clear it would happen — was never in serious doubt. Canada dominated play and beat the Russian team, 6-1. It was the second consecutive loss for the Russians, who fell to the United States, 5-0, on Saturday.