Russians Unconvinced by Motives and Logic Behind Rio Olympics Ban

Several Russians do not buy the given reason of state-sponsored doping, instead seeing the ban as a global punishment for the country’s foreign policy.

Russia’s track and field athletes will miss the Rio Olympics. Credit: Jim Young/Reuters

Russia’s track and field athletes will miss the Rio Olympics. Credit: Jim Young/Reuters

Moscow: Russia’s entire track and field team has been banned from participating in this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio over charges of state-sponsored doping, a decision handed down by the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) on Friday and swiftly confirmed by the International Olympic Committee the next day.

The Olympics have seen political boycotts in the past, but no national team has ever been banned over alleged rules violations by some of its members. Rune Andersen, an IAAF official, told journalists that this extreme measure was taken due to the ubiquitous nature of the problem among Russian athletes. “The system in Russia has been tainted by doping from the top level and down,” he said.

‘Punishing’ Russia?

But in Russia, where the news landed like a bombshell, there is a strong feeling that this is part of a larger campaign to punish Moscow for its foreign policies, going in the same direction as sanctions, efforts to cancel Russia’s right to host the 2018 football World Cup and what many Russians see as Cold War-style demonisation of their country in the global media. No one is denying that the doping problem exists, or that it’s serious, but they argue the punishment is out of all proportion to the crimes and wrecks the hopes of all aspiring Russian  athletes – the innocent along with the guilty.

“This is terrible news for our athletes,” said Kirill Belyakov, a former hockey star who now works as press agent for Vladivostok’s hockey team. “They’ve been working hard for four years and now this blow. Younger athletes might be able to look forward to the next Olympics, but for many this was their last chance. It’s a going to be a huge trauma for them, and intensely demoralising even for the younger ones.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin lashed out at this decision, which he described as collective punishment. That’s a view many Russian athletes, most of whom claim in direct interviews not to use performance-enhancing drugs, appear to share.

“If an athlete is caught doping it’s already a harsh punishment,” said Lyukman Adams, a Russian triple-jumper of Nigerian descent. “But why should we all suffer? I don’t care about politics, I want to participate, to compete, to realise my dreams.”

One of Russia’s top pole-vaulters, Yelena Isinbaeva, penned a heartfelt op-ed in the New York Times this week, making the same point. She does not use drugs and has consistently turned in clean tests, she insisted, so why should her career be shattered by this?

“A person who is punished should realise why he is being punished. This is not fair and it will stay with people for a long time,” said Yevgeny Ter-Avanesov, Adams’ trainer. “This is not fair punishment, it’s just a wish to ruin. It’s like conviction before trial, yet we have no way to appeal it.”

Russia claims to have tried hard in recent months to address the storm of criticism, and the Kremlin has staunchly denied persistent charges that doping is a state-sponsored enterprise. But, as the sports ministry’s main anti-doping adviser Natalia Zhelanova tweeted in a resigned tone last week:

Russian disc thrower Nikolai Serdyuk complained that he wasn’t one of those chosen to be re-tested in recent months, so wasn’t even given a chance to clear his name. “Now all my efforts are in vain. Here I am, under the hammer, and no way to do what I’ve been preparing for all my life,” he said. “I just don’t get it. We have been struggling against doping here in Russia, just as they are doing the world over. It’s not a Russian problem, it’s a problem of dishonest athletes. But now, Russia’s reputation is tarnished. Everyone is looking at Russian athletes as if we are a bunch of scammers.”

The crisis began in November when the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) issued a damning report that accused Russia of carrying out a systematic, state-sponsored doping programme, primarily among track and field athletes. After that the IAAF blacklisted the entire Russian track and field team and said that unless there was cardinal progress in ending not only the doping, but the culture of doping alleged to prevail in Russia, the entire Russian team would be banned from participating in the Rio Summer Olympics. Last week WADA issued a deeply negative update, citing major problems in re-testing athletes, including allegations of deliberate avoidance.

A view through a fence, decorated with the Olympic rings, shows a building of the federal state budgetary institution in Moscow, which houses a laboratory accredited by the World Anti-Doping Agency. Credit: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin/File Photo/Files

A view through a fence, decorated with the Olympic rings, shows a building of the federal state budgetary institution in Moscow, which houses a laboratory accredited by the World Anti-Doping Agency. Credit: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin/File Photo/Files

The accusations against Russia were given global resonance by media exposés of Russian doping practices, especially an interview with the former director of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory at the Sochi Olympics, Grigory Rodchenkov, who described how he had administered drug cocktails to some of Russia’s biggest Olympic stars and subsequently defeated the testing system by swapping their compromised test samples for clean ones.

Polls suggest that Russian public opinion is no more tolerant of doping than in most other countries. A survey conducted by the state-funded VTsIOM agency in March found that 76% of Russians think the national sports establishment needs to eradicate doping “by any means”. Just 17% thought the use of performance-enhancing drugs was permissible. But the same poll showed the Russian public to be defensive about the allegations against its sports people. About two-thirds of respondents believed any violations by Russian athletes to be “isolated cases”, while a quarter thought the allegations were politically-motivated, to pressure Moscow over its foreign policies.

Russian sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, varied his statements between pledges to root out the problem and dark complaints that Russia was being singled out for revenge by geopolitical foes.

That’s an allegation that many Russian sports people echo.

“Big sport is closely related with big politics. So if someone wants to hurt Russia, they can find some fault and keep amplifying it and building it up,” said Alexei Tishenko, a famous Russian boxer and twice Olympic champion. “No matter how much we want sports to be free from politics and just work things out among sports people, politics always interferes. And we athletes are hostages to this situation.”

Oleg Shamonayev, editor of the Moscow daily Sport Express, said Russia has been quite open in recent years, with many foreign trainers working with its teams and many Russian athletes training abroad. “The problem is that the IAAF has no Russians among its top managers. There are Americans, British, French, Australians, but never Russians. I’m not suggesting a conspiracy against Russia, but these are the people who create the atmosphere. I’m sure if you took any big sporting country and subjected it to constant checks and re-checks, you will find all kinds of interesting problems. We know that such scandals take place in many countries, but it doesn’t lead to such sweeping measures against them. That’s why we have the impression that Russia is being used as a whipping boy on this issue,” he said. “In the world today, Russia is being portrayed as an evil empire, that seems to be capable of anything. It’s hard to conquer the global problem of doping and much easier to single out one country and give it a demonstrative beating. That’s what’s going on here,” he added.

Several Russian Olympic athletes interviewed in recent days insisted they do not use drugs, adding that the controls on doping in Russia are as tough as anywhere in the world. On the other hand, Sky News found a Russian runner who had tested positive for banned substances, Tatyana Firova, who argued that doping is just part of the system. “A normal person can take banned substances if they want to,” she was quoted as saying. “So why can’t athletes take them as well. How else can we achieve high results?”

A new Cold War

Some experts say this decision will deepen Russia’s alienation from the West and intensify the sense that a new Cold War is underway.

“People will remember 1980, when they boycotted the Olympic Games held in Moscow, and see it as the same sort of thing,” said Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. “They will just think it’s US pressure against us, making us a scapegoat for the doping problem, and think: why should we even bother going abroad anymore?”

Dmitry Galochkin, a member of Russia’s public chamber, a semi-official assembly of non-governmental groups, said the Olympics will suffer as a result of Russia’s exclusion. “Of course, maybe it looks like a break for other national teams if one of the strongest competitors can’t come,” he said. “But in the long term it portends the death of Olympic sports, suffocated by geopolitics.”