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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Russia’s Semen Elistratov gives nation reason to cheer at Olympics

Lim Hyojun, left, of South Korea leads Sjinkie Knegt of the Netherlands and Semen Elistratov, right, of the Olympic Athletes of Russia to win the men's 1500 meters short-track speedskating final in the Gangneung Ice Arena at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. (Bernat Armangue / Associated Press)
By Paul Newberry Associated Press

GANGNEUNG, South Korea – Semen Elistratov hopped up and down on the Olympic podium, pumping his fists toward a group of fans waving Russian flags.

He claimed a bronze medal for his disgraced nation.

It felt more like platinum.

Elistratov became the first Russian to earn a medal at the Pyeongchang Olympics with a third-place finish in men’s 1,500-meter short-track speedskating on Saturday.

He wasn’t able to compete under his country’s banner, of course. Russia was banned from the games after revelations of a massive doping operation.

But the International Olympic Committee cleared 168 competitors to take part under the rather bland moniker “Olympic Athletes from Russia.” When Elistratov zipped around the rink, he was wearing a blue-and-white skinsuit with the letters “OAR” emblazoned across his chest and back.

Afterward, he made it clear this was a triumph for his homeland.

“I dedicate this medal to all guys that have been excluded from these games in such a hard and unfair way,” Elistratov said. “This medal is for you.”

He wasn’t sure he wanted to compete at the Olympics, despite being cleared of his own doping offense in 2016. His wife, parents and coach persuaded him to take the spot offered up by the IOC.

“It was not an easy decision at all,” Elistratov said.

Now, he’s sure glad he came.

Lim Hyo-jun won the crash-filled race, giving South Korea its first gold medal of the games. Elistratov managed to stay out of trouble, crossing the line right behind Lim and silver medalist Sjinkie Knegt of the Netherlands.

“This bronze medal is almost like a platinum medal to me,” the Russian said through a translator.

Four years ago, Elistratov was part of a gold medal-winning team in the 5,000 relay. The Russians won’t get a chance to defend their title in Pyeongchang because only three short-track skaters were approved by the IOC – one short of what is needed for a complete team.

Viktor Ahn, who captured three gold medals in Sochi, was among those banned from Pyeongchang. He lost his final appeal on Friday, just a few hours before the opening ceremony .

In 2016, Elistratov tested positive for the banned substance meldonium, which forced him to sit out that year’s world championships. His suspension was lifted when the World Anti-Doping Agency issued an amnesty for athletes with low concentrations of the Latvian-made heart drug.

Meldonium was added to the list of banned substances about two months before Elistratov’s failed test. But WADA conceded that it wasn’t sure how long the drug could stay in the body, even if athletes had stopped taking it before it was prohibited.

The same drug led to a 15-month suspension for tennis star Maria Sharapova, who took meldonium after it was banned.

Even though the Russian flag won’t be raised for Elistratov during Sunday’s formal medal ceremony – the IOC flag will go up in its place – dozens of fans waved the white, blue and red banner at one end of the Gangneung Ice Arena.

The skater was most appreciative.

“I’m very grateful to the Russian fans who managed to come here to support us, to support our team,” Elistratov said. “This has been an incredibly difficult situation.”