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We Need to Talk About How We’re Talking About the Olympic Athletes From Russia

An examination of the exhausting, eight-syllable phrase that will be repeated ad nauseum over the next two weeks in Pyeongchang

Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

On Wednesday evening, I turned on the 2018 Winter Olympics for the first time to watch mixed doubles curling. Matt and Becca Hamilton, an extremely chill brother-sister duo from Wisconsin, beat the absolute stuffing out of the husband-and-wife team of Alexander Krushelnitskiy and Anastasia Bryzgalova, who had won the 2016 world title in mixed doubles representing Russia.

Thursday morning, I woke up muttering the phrase “Olympic Athletes From Russia” over and over, to the cadence of the “It’s Hard to be Jewish in Russia” song from the episode of Community where Troy ends up in a production of Fiddler on the Roof.

Krushelnitskiy and Bryzgalova are competing in Pyeongchang not under their native flag, but under a neutral Olympic banner, in plain black-and-white uniforms, for the “Olympic Athletes From Russia” team. This bizarre situation is the result of an unprecedented punishment levied by the International Olympic Committee against Russia for systemic state-sponsored doping: The Russian team was banned, wholesale, from the Pyeongchang Games. Or rather, the nation’s flag, national anthem, political leaders, and many—but not all—of its athletes were banned. Russian athletes determined to be clean, including Krushelnitskiy and Bryzgalova, were deemed eligible to compete.

It’s relatively common for Olympic athletes to compete independent of their country—the refugee team from the 2016 Rio Games being a recent example. It’s also common for the very name of a delegation to be controversial and fraught with political consequences: Athletes from Taiwan compete not under that banner, nor as the People’s Republic of China, but instead as Chinese Taipei, owing to the complex political and diplomatic situation between Taiwan and the mainland People’s Republic of China. The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia competes under that name because Greece considers the name “Macedonia” to be appropriative of ancient Greek culture—notably Alexander the Great—and indicative of a Macedonian intention to conquer the northern Greek province of the same name. In fact, Greek objections to the country’s name have been a major obstacle to Macedonia’s accession to the European Union for more than a decade.

These naming conventions are all part of the delicate political balance and diplomatic passive-aggressiveness that make the Olympics so fascinating anthropologically. And from a purely jingoistic perspective, it’s absolutely hilarious to watch one of the United States’s biggest athletic and geopolitical rivals suffer such an embarrassing but strategically benign black eye.

Still, I was not prepared for how big a mouthful “Olympic Athletes From Russia” was going to be. “Olympic Athletes From Russia” is eight syllables long—not as long as “United States of America,” which is nine syllables, but when’s the last time you heard someone drop our country’s full name into anything besides the Pledge of Allegiance? In sports, it’s always “the U.S.” or “Team USA,” or even “the Americans.” “Olympic Athletes From Russia,” however, has so far rarely been abbreviated.

NBC’s announcers are still figuring out how to navigate “Olympic Athletes From Russia.” You could almost hear figure skating color commentator Johnny Weir rolling his eyes as he chewed on the phrase during the first night of the team competition. (That might be the result of Weir’s personal frustration with the moniker, or it might be the result of Weir being the kind of person who’ll say of a pairs routine: “The song is much bigger than them.” It’s tough to tell.) Curling play-by-play announcer Jason Knapp said the whole thing over and over on Wednesday, committing to the kind of repetition that will make any word or phrase sound weird even if it doesn’t take four minutes to spit out. And in Knapp’s defense, referring to the Russian duo of “Bryzgalova and Krushelnitskiy” wouldn’t have been any more economical.

Originally, I wondered if this phrase was a concession to that aforementioned delicate political balance: Was NBC somehow barred or discouraged from referring to Russian athletes as such? Turns out that isn’t really the case.

A query to NBC generated the following statement from a network spokesperson: “Olympic Athletes From Russia is the official name of the delegation, so viewers will see that in most graphics. It will be said often by our commentators, but casual references such as ‘Russian athletes’ will also be used.”

That raises an interesting point: It would be not only impolitic but inaccurate to refer to the de facto Team Russia as such. After all, that was the whole point of the IOC’s nationwide doping ban. However, Bryzgalova, Krushelnitskiy, and their compatriots are still Russians, even if they’re without state sponsorship for the next few weeks. That distinction between state and nationality is the reason the Belgian monarch’s official title is “King of the Belgians” and not “King of Belgium”—the former implies sovereignty comes from the will of the people, while the latter implies sovereignty comes from the land they inhabit.

Referring to the Olympic Athletes From Russia as “the Russians” from time to time might be the only way to avoid tripping over this verbal marathon for the next two weeks. The team’s full name only lends itself to one other abbreviation: OAR, the official IOC country code. Using “OAR,” particularly this early in the Olympics, creates two obvious issues of clarity. The first is that the Olympics draw mostly casual fans: Many viewers who tune in and hear announcers talking about “OAR” might not be aware that Russia has been banned and that some of its athletes have been sent to the Olympics with their badges removed and their serial numbers filed down.

The second is that one of the few things longer and more annoying than “Olympic Athletes From Russia” is a live recording of “Crazy Game of Poker” by the American rock band O.A.R.

Suffice it to say, figuring out what to call the Olympic Athletes From Russia is a complicated issue. Perhaps not as complicated as the sports sanctions that necessitated it, and certainly not as complicated as the naming controversies surrounding Macedonia or Taiwan. But perhaps more immediately pressing, because nobody’s walking around with the phrase “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” rattling around in their brains.