TOKYO — Russia’s not really at the Olympics. But that hasn’t stopped the world’s largest country from hauling gold out of Tokyo like a Siberian mine.

The Russian Olympic Committee, as the athletes competing here are known, has 53 total medals at the Tokyo Games, putting them behind only China and the U.S. They can’t celebrate under their flag. Nor can they blare the Russian national anthem on the podium. Yet they’re walking away with hardware in some of the Olympics’ biggest and most prestigious events, even after the country was technically banned for a yearslong, state-sponsored doping scheme.

For the athletes who did make it to Tokyo, it took surviving the twin blows of national ignominy and Covid-19. It turns out that these might have been the best things to happen to them. In the midst of a global pandemic, Russians discovered a secret training weapon that was available to few other athletes on the planet: their own geography.

By locking themselves down in places like the far-flung Eastern city of Vladivostok or the Sakhalin island, many ROC stars were able to prepare in similar time zones and conditions as Japan.

An expanded version of this article appears on WSJ.com.

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