SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Anger over a disallowed goal in the Winter Olympic ice hockey has united host nation Russia, though not for the reasons President Vladimir Putin would have wanted.
The American referee’s refusal to count what would have been a winning goal for Russia against the United States on Saturday outraged fans from across the political divide, breaking down barriers in a way that almost nothing else can in Russia.
“The puck was in the goal. What an abomination. Cheating before the whole world! Disgusting!” Alexei Pushkov, a senior pro-Putin member of parliament, wrote in comments on Twitter lambasting the referee.
At the other end of the political spectrum, opposition leader Alexei Navalny backed the torrent of abuse about the disallowed goal that quickly flooded Twitter: “I go along with everything that’s been said about the referee.”
Prominent gay activist Nikolai Alexeyev, at odds with Putin over a law banning homosexual propaganda among minors that overshadowed the Games preparations, was left in shock.
“There’s a huge scandal in the hockey tournament. The American referee didn’t allow the Russian goal. Damn!” he wrote, also on Twitter.
The comments proved again Nelson Mandela’s adage that sport “has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.”
Uniting his fractured nation is a goal at the Games for Putin as he tries to rally support after big protests against him in the winter and spring of 2011-2012.
Putin may be pondering whether there are any long-term political benefits to be had from the temporary unity on one issue.
He may also be wondering what might have been if that sense of unity had been achieved in victory, not glorious defeat.
The president was crestfallen as he left the stadium after the 3-2 defeat in a shootout after a match that revived memories of the Americans’ Cold War-era victory over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Winter Olympics.
The goal was disallowed because although the puck went into the net, the net was slightly off its moorings.
“Sport is sport,” the Russian president said.
He refused to be drawn into criticism of the referee that might trigger yet another Transatlantic spat with President Barack Obama because of the game official’s nationality.
He did not even take the bait when a Ukrainian Olympic team official, sitting across the table from Putin, questioned the referee’s decision and said: “It’s the Americans again”.
Putin laughed and said those were the Ukrainian official’s words, not his own.
The Russian players were upset at the referee’s decision. Former goaltender Vladislav Tretyak played peacemaker by underlining that the decision was in line with the rules.
But this did not calm a nation seething over a match in which most believed their players lost heroically and had victory stolen from them.
“It’s clear from the (TV) replay. A perfect goal!” a centrist opposition parliamentarian, Dmitry Gudkov, wrote.
Other Twitter users were even less complimentary about the referee.
One, who identified herself as I. Dombrovskaya, wrote: “Turn the referee into soap. Booooooooooo.”
Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman in Moscow; Editing by Ossian Shine