OAR: Olympic Athletes from Russia, Who Obviously Are Russians

If you spent part of the 2018 Winter Olympics wondering what country “OAR” was, you’re not alone. OAR isn’t a country at all! The Olympic Athletes from Russia, or OAR, consisted of the remnants of the Russian Olympic team deemed “clean” enough to participate after the IOC essentially banned Russia from the Games following the discovery of a government-organized doping campaign.

As a result, these “clean” Russian athletes spent the Games in grey uniforms with a weird “logo” explicitly “designed” (HA) to be “as generic as possible.” The OAR were forbidden from using “national identifications design elements” in their uniforms or other regalia/paraphernalia, from having the Russian national anthem played at medal ceremonies, and basically displaying any national pride whatsoever.

Since they couldn’t be Team Russia, here’s what they got to wear:

The mark representing the Olympic Athletes from Russia at the 2018 Winter Olympics

I mean, the word “Russia” is even upside-down! So wondering “WTF are they?” is understandable.

As Generic As Possible

The IOC guidelines for the Russian… I mean, “neutral” team’s participation indicated that any identifiers must be “as generic as possible.” And well, that… thing is certainly generic. Plain, sans serif lettering of an unspecified font, set in a circle, with seemingly no consideration paid to its readability or orientation. The lettering starts and ends approximately at the bottom of the circle, but looks a bit off-centered visually. It’s so successfully generic I can barely find anything of substance to say about it. I mean, I have THOUGHTS about the tracking (the spacing between individual letters), but this… thing is so nondescript it hardly seems worth the effort to complain about.

Congratulations, neutrality-seekers, there’s no there there. I can’t call it a logo, it’s barely a wordmark, it’s the Symbol Formerly Known as Russia drawn by someone who’s just discovered Word Art.

Somewhat annoyingly, the New York Times held a… well, not a contest, exactly, but a call for “designs” for a neutral-not-Russian team logo and a unified Korean flag. At the risk of outing myself as an utterly insufferable design prick, the results were about what I’d expect. I hold absolutely nothing against the fine folks who sent in their ideas, because some of them could be interesting if developed. I’m just increasingly annoyed at having every damn thing that isn’t a written essay being referred to as a “design.” Making marks that aren’t letters with a computer does not make an image a “design,” and I will die on this hill.

The Russian athletes themselves didn’t seem particularly concerned with this slapdash logo, though. A few days after the IOC announced its decision regarding the doping scheme, the Russian Olympic Committee announced that their athletes were willing to compete in the 2018 Winter Games under a “neutral” flag. Though some believed there was no evidence for the doping charge and “their hearts are broken,” athletes and government alike were determined to participate. Even Putin opposed a boycott of the Games, though he impugned the word of whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov.

At an event so heavily imbued with symbolism that stirs national pride, how does this “neutral” representation impact the athletes and fans? Honestly, it simply seems to have polarized people even more than the Olympics usually would.

People who had no interest in the Games before the ban felt even less reason to pay attention. Russia is, after all, a federation of (depending on who you’re talking to) 85 federal subjects. And particularly considering its size (ahem, AMERICA), it’s understandable that symbolic pride might vary wildly between various areas. How devoted are you to the symbols of Russia if you don’t really consider yourself particularly Russian? I mean, perhaps being annexed doesn’t make you immediately feel all warm and fuzzy about a national anthem, I don’t know.

Speaking of, Russia’s anthem isn’t all that established itself.

  • In 1944, “The Internationale” was replaced with a Soviet-centric anthem.
  • That anthem’s lyrics were eliminated in 1956 to get rid of references to Stalin.
  • Then new-and-different lyrics were added again in 1977.
  • Then the lyric-free “Patrioticheskaya Pesnya” was adopted in 1990. Confirmed in 1993, it was unpopular in part because it had no lyrics to inspire athletes at international competitions.
  • Finally, in December 2000, the anthem returned to being the old Soviet anthem tune with new lyrics, now called the State Anthem of the Russian Federation.

In short, singing along as part of a proud tradition of watching the Olympics with Grandma might be a bit difficult, assuming you even live in an area that feels strongly about Russian symbols in the first place.

However, folks who might have otherwise been only vaguely interested in the Games went all-in. Russian fans were gleefully sporting all kinds of Russian adornments and amplifying their patriotism through sport. And the ban on Russian-centric symbols and colors only affected the competing athletes – it did not extend to the fans in the stands.

Olympic Grade Enthusiasm

Wearing all the accoutrements forbidden to their players, Russian fans in PyeongChang cheered and sang the Russian anthem while waving Russian flags and wearing Russian colors, jerseys, scarves, hats… you name it. A nearby wedding venue was turned into a “Sports House” for visiting fans, filled with Russian medal charts, cardboard cutouts of Russian hockey players, Russian tea and cakes, Russian nesting dolls, and a huge video screen for watching replays of Russian competitors. The only thing they couldn’t do was call it “Russia House.”

But unlike their enthusiastically-tricolored fans, the Russian athletes marched into the opening ceremonies wearing grey coats, marching behind a volunteer carrying an Olympic flag rather than a Russian one. Everything associated with the OAR was (rather hamfistedly) stripped of anything that could mark them as a Russian team… aside from the fact that they are, in fact, Russian and a team.

According to the IOC guidelines, the “neutral” athlete’s uniforms and other equipment could bear no Russian flags, no shades of blue or red that are too close to those of the Russian flag, only two colors were allowed at once (no tricolor!), and the word “Russia” had to be in English and no larger than any other word in the generic… description-in-a-circle. (I just cannot call it a logo.) The athletes could not post any Russia-centric images or messages on social media, and were also required to “refrain from any public form of publicity, activity and communication associated with the national flag, anthem, emblem and symbols” at all Olympic sites and venues.

Thus was the Russian experience at the 2018 Winter Games, until the very end. For a brief moment on Saturday, it looked like the “neutral” team had a chance to have the IOC’s symbolic decision reversed just in time for the Olympics closing ceremonies. Almost at the last minute, a Russian delegation made one final pitch to the IOC to allow the athletes to march behind the Russian flag in the closing ceremonies. But because two Russian athletes tested positive for doping during the Games, the committee declined to lift the country’s suspension before the end of the Games.

Shortly after this decision was made, the men’s hockey team made a controversial decision of their own. Following a close game against Germany, the gold-winning OARs decided to sing the Russian national anthem over the Olympic anthem during the medal ceremony. It’s unclear what the IOC will (or can) do about this clear violation of its neutrality rules for the Russian athletes, even though it’s common knowledge that the team had decided in advance to do so. (Oh, Pasha.)

Fun fact: the last time a team of athletes from Russia won the gold in hockey was 1992, when the so-called “Unified Team” defeated Canada… also under the Olympic flag. So maybe the five rings really are a good symbol for Russia… in hockey, anyway.

And I’d think it’s certainly far better to be represented by five rings of solid colors than one ring of poorly-set text.

Beth Voigt

Beth is a graphic designer in Chicago, a superhero in her own mind, and absolutely nothing on TV. She wrangles fonts professionally, pummels code amateurishly, and has been known to shove fire in her face for fun. Fond of volunteering, late-night bursts of productivity, and making snacks, she dislikes grocery shopping and sticky public transit and is only on her second smartphone. Her opinion is that you should try everything twice; if you don't like it, you were probably doing it wrong the first time around. If external links are your thing, here are links to Twitter and Instagram, and you can support her ongoing weirdness by buying her a coffee or six.

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