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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fans Give Athletes a Hero's Welcome

MTGold-medal winning cross-country skier Mikhail Ivanov being besieged by fans upon his arrival at the airport on Tuesday.
Hundreds gathered at Sheremetyevo Airport on Tuesday to give the Russian Olympic team a very warm welcome home. When the athletes emerged from the VIP arrivals section, a band started playing and the crowd began chanting the names of cross-country skiing stars Yulia Chepalova and Larisa Lazutina.

Holding Russian flags, cheerful signs, flowers and toys, the fans had waited patiently for the two planes carrying the athletes to arrive from Salt Lake City, where the team had become the focus of some of the Games' most contentious scandals. Many of the airport's personnel, including uniformed customs and border guards, left their stations to join the crowd of supporters, some of whom were also playing hooky.

"We skipped three classes just to be here and express support for our skiers and figure skaters, who are the best but have been treated unfairly," said Dasha Bykova, 14, who came to Sheremetyevo from the town of Lobnya in the Moscow region.

The crowd gave an especially sympathetic reception to Lazutina, who was stripped of her gold medal after winning the women's 30-kilometer classical race because she tested positive for the performance-enhancing drug darbepoetin. Lazutina has said the Salt Lake City Games would be her last Olympics.

Walking a little behind the rest of the team, Lazutina, forcing a smile, paused to sign several autographs and left earlier than her teammates.

Stealing the show at Sheremetyevo was Mikhail Ivanov. He took the gold medal in the men's 50-kilometer cross country after Spanish skier Johann Muehlegg was disqualified on a doping charge. Several dozen teenage girls surrounded Ivanov to pose with him for photographs.

Though exhausted after the long flight, the athletes looked pleased by the strong show of support.

"I can only say that I have done my best. Too many people were negatively disposed toward us," said silver-medal winner Irina Slutskaya as she stood, dwarfed by the huge bouquet of red roses she was holding, signing autographs for a dozen students. Slutskaya had looked certain to win gold in the figure skating after American Michelle Kwan fell, but both were outscored by American newcomer Sarah Hughes.

Igor Tabakov / MT

Dasha Bykova, 14, skipped class to show her support for the returning Olympians.

Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matviyenko, at the airport to greet the athletes, said the team deserved a lot of credit.

"I was there for five days and saw how much effort our athletes put into representing Russia well. The fact that we were fourth among 78 nations means a lot, and we should not diminish that," Matviyenko said.

Matviyenko arrived in Salt Lake City amid a contentious debate over the gold medal in pairs figure skating. Olympic officials awarded a second gold medal to a Canadian duo after Russians Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze had been declared the winners.

The Russian Olympic Committee protested this and other rulings. It threatened to withdraw from the Games early and even to boycott future Games but then decided to stay until the end.

The Russian officials came under fire from the Russian media, some lawmakers and government officials for being "passive" and "inconsistent" in their reactions.

Russian Olympic Committee chairman Leonid Tyagachyov defended their emotional protests. "We simply wanted to correct the injustice that millions of our fans and viewers witnessed," he said.

Both Matviyenko and Tyagachyov agreed Russia has a lot of work to do before the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, including reviving its traditional strength in winter sports and putting more Russians in international judging circles.

"Our Olympic team is strong, but we have practically no representatives in international judging," Tyagachyov said.