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Russia's greatest sports crisis since Soviet era

Neil Macfarquhar, International New York Times, Dec 7 2017, 0:05 IST
The Russian flag flies at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games, Feb. 7, 2014. Russia, which has long burnished its athletic prowess as a symbol of its status, faces its largest international sporting crisis since the Soviet era when the International Olympic Committee banned it from competing in the 2018 Winter games on Dec. 5, 2017. (Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)

The Russian flag flies at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games, Feb. 7, 2014. Russia, which has long burnished its athletic prowess as a symbol of its status, faces its largest international sporting crisis since the Soviet era when the International Olympic Committee banned it from competing in the 2018 Winter games on Dec. 5, 2017. (Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)

Russia, which has long burnished athletic prowess as a symbol of its great power status, faced its largest international sporting crisis since the Soviet era on Tuesday when the International Olympic Committee banned the country from competing in the 2018 Winter Games.

In a country that is a winter sports powerhouse, one covered by snow much of the year, the ban pitted the desire of ordinary Russians to cheer on their champion skaters, biathletes and hockey players against calls to boycott the games to show that an Olympics without Russia is no Olympics at all.

Beyond sports, the decision carried the whiff of history, when Olympic playing fields were an extension of Cold War battlefields. Back then, to be sure, the sources of conflict were rooted in political ideology, not in performance-enhancing drugs.

A number of senior Russian politicians and sporting officials demanded that Russia avoid the Winter Games in South Korea entirely, while others thought individual competitors should make the decision. The ban left open the door for athletes to compete as individuals, under the Olympic flag.

"The question now is to participate using this status, or not," Aleksei Durnovo, a sports commentator on the Echo of Moscow radio station, said in an interview. "Some people think it's humiliation to participate like this, others that we should, to allow the athletes an opportunity to compete."

In Switzerland, Alexander Zhukov, the president of the Russian Olympic Committee, apologised "for violations of anti-doping rules that were committed in our country," though Russian officials have been steadfast that the problem was not systemic or sanctioned by the government. Zhukov was himself suspended Tuesday.

President Vladimir Putin, the most important voice in the decision, was not heard from immediately. He had previously suggested that competing under anything other than the Russian flag would be "humiliating." Russia is expected to appeal.

There was also a political facet to it all, especially with Putin's re-election campaign unrolling next February as the games take place.

Some political analysts predicted it would have no effect on Putin's popularity - if anything it might increase his standing - as the president built his current popularity on the idea that he "brought Russia off its knees," ending the perceived humiliations the West heaped on the ashes of the Soviet Union.

Other political analysts wondered whether the mounting scandals involving Russia might not begin to reverberate. There is the threat of new sanctions from the United States over election hacking, for example, as well as the investigation into the Trump campaign's contacts with Moscow and a court case in the Netherlands over the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines jetliner over Ukraine in 2014.

"There are too many fishy stories in the Kremlin's relations with Europe and the US," said Aleksandr Morozov, a political analyst and frequent Kremlin critic, suggesting that the public would begin to trust the Kremlin less and Russia's international reputation would further erode. "Moreover, the Kremlin does not want to investigate any of these scandals and publish its results, neither to its own society nor to the international community."

State outlets like RT, the international television voice of the Russian government, went into overdrive attacking the international inquiry as an attempt to demean Russia, while ignoring questions about whether something was rotten in Russian sports. One of the main state broadcasters announced immediately that it would not show the games.

Hence most commentators thought public ire would likely focus on the international community, blamed again for singling out Russia unfairly, and perhaps the senior Russian sporting officials sanctioned by the IOC, but not on Putin himself.

Aleksandr Zubkov, who leads the federation of Russian bobsledders, was banned for life by the IOC, said that it would be up to the individual athletes to decide whether to participate, as did Aleksei Kravtsov, the head of the skating union, according to the Interfax news agency.

Irina A Avvakumova, a ski jumper, said she was inclined not to go but would consult her coaches. "I don't know how other athletes will react, but I was not training for many years to go and not participate for my own country," she was quoted as saying by the Tass news agency.

Alexander Tikhonov, a former champion Soviet biathlete and previous head of the Russian association, encouraged athletes to go. "We have to prove to everyone that we're the best," he was quoted as saying by Championat.com, a sports website. "Competing without the anthem and the flag is not a treachery. We have to go and to give hell to everyone: to the Americans, to the whole world."

On social media, some critics of participating in the games said athletes who went should lose their citizenship. Critics of the Olympic ban started a #NoRussiaNoGames account on Instagram. Arguments erupted on Twitter over whe ther the Russians should go as neutrals. One man suggested that the Olympians could be heroes without winning a single medal by not going, while another responded that going could strike a blow against excessive nationalism.

Unfair decision

Television cameras focused on the glum faces of the Russian Olympic hopefuls watching the announcement made their perspective clear. There was great sympathy for the clean athletes who might now be barred from competing by a Russian boycott.

"This is a very sad story - Russia has a lot of athletes who are suspected of nothing in this story," said Durnovo, the sports commentator. "These are people with a good reputation, they were never suspected of anything, why should they not go to the Olympics?"

Russian officials and sports figures tend to call the issue an extension of the current tensions between the West and Russia over issues like hacking the US election rather than a question of sports violations.

"We understand why this happened - this is an echo of political differences," said Dmitry Svishchev, a member of the Russian parliament's sports committee and the president of the Russian Curling Federation.

Asked in October about possible action by the Olympic committee, Putin suggested it was a US plot and hinted at a boycott if there was either an outright ban on Russia or an order to compete under a neutral flag. "Either way, it is humiliating for our country," he said.

Investigators did not find any direct link to Putin in the doping scandal, said Samuel Schmid, the former president of Switzerland who led the investigation.

Like the Soviet Union, Putin invested in the Olympics as a means to burnish Russia's international reputation and his own political fortunes. His public approval rating had been in steady decline before the 2014 Winter Olympics at Sochi, Russia.

Russian athletes excelled in those games, winning 33 medals, 13 of them gold. A month later he annexed Crimea and his domestic approval ratings soared to 86% and have barely retreated since. The IOC has now retroactively banned 25 Russians who competed in Sochi for doping offences, stripping them of 11 medals. Investigations are ongoing.

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