Russia spent more than $50 billion to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, then devised the most elaborate doping scheme in history to consolidate its position as the world’s sports superpower.
Following another drug scandal that swept through the Beijing Olympics earlier this month, the country’s invasion of Ukraine could serve to undermine a sports dynasty tainted by cheating and deception, and can often be met with timid retreat from international sports leaders.
A recalculation would undermine Russia’s ability to stage events domestically and to dominate abroad. This would be a financial and moral blow. And that would undermine the image of a prosperous country that President Vladimir Putin and his predecessors sought to foster, powered by strong athletes who beat international rivals at people’s games.
Edwin Moses, the gold medal-winning American hurdler who played a key role in resolving the Russian scandals, recalled that Moscow was trying to explain its point of view to the anti-doping leaders.
One of the things I always try to convey to them is, “You don’t understand how important the sport is to them,” said Moses. And I would tell them, you don’t understand how far they want to go to spoil it.
In addition to widespread condemnation by Western governments, Russia’s entry into Ukraine has been widely criticized by major sports organizations, including the International Olympic Committee.
A number of federations, including skiing, curling and Formula 1, have drawn top events in Russia. UEFA, the governing body of European football, took the lead this spring as it moved the Champions League final from St Petersburg to Paris. The International Biathlon Union banned Russia from its activities. The CIO, the largest conglomerate of them all, denounced the invasion.
An economics professor estimates that the financial loss from the Champions League final could be tens of millions of dollars, a fraction of what Russia could lose from all the displaced events. However, he said money is only a small part of what drives Putin.
It’s there for prestige and power,” said Victor A. Matheson of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. “The truth here is that it’s a blow to his ego. He likes to be responsible for everything.
Russia’s power within the global sports community is most clearly defined by its relationship with the IOC. Although Putin’s country has been officially banned from the Beijing Games, Russia has assembled a team of more than 200 athletes competing as members of the Olympic Committee. They combined to win 32 medals, the second highest trophy in the Games.
Equally notable, Putin attended the opening ceremony at the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing with IOC president Thomas Bach. It was a show of defiance: Putin was there while the United States and some of its allies refused to send diplomats to protest China’s human rights record. He also highlighted how Putin is in a pretty good position with the IOC to participate despite the ban.
Paul Massaro, a senior congressional political adviser working on sports and international corruption-related issues, said that Putin now has Russia on his mind, three years from now in Paris, where he will be at the Olympics again. But I’m not sure he fully appreciates the paradigm shift he has created. I don’t want to eat these words but I actually think Russia can be banned this time.
The Russian government has described the doping investigations as politically driven by the West.
Moscow’s latest condemnation of Ukraine has focused on the violation of the Olympic ceasefire, a UN-sanctioned call for world peace that will remain in effect until March 20, seven days after the closing of the Paralympic Games in Beijing.
Despite the rhetoric, Bach is poised to topple years of precedent with the country’s relatively soft treatment of Russia in its long-running doping scandals. The actions taken by the IOC in support of the latest display of discontent will shape Russia’s role in world sports for the next decade or more.
The miserable doping case involving 15-year-old Russian skater Kamila Valieva, who swept through the Beijing Games, potentially played against the country. He tested positive for taking a prohibited heart drug, and although the sample was taken weeks ago, the result was not announced by anti-doping officials until he won a gold medal in the team competition.
This put Bach in the rare position of openly criticizing Russia, which resulted in the Kremlin’s reprimand.
The Olympic movement, and international sports in general, tolerated far worse than Russia and, before that, the Soviet Union. Moses recounted traveling to the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, long before anti-doping rules were codified globally to try to strike an anti-drug deal with the Soviets.
“Their rationale for setting up an (anti-doping) laboratory was completely different from ours,” he said. “We tried to end doping. These athletes wanted to win gold medals and these athletes would be national heroes and treasures.
Before the next IOC decision, there will be other signals besides a realignment of events about how world sport is dealing with Russia.
Linda Helleland, a former vice-president of the World Anti-Doping Agency and a longtime critic of Russia, said she would encourage a policy at the Council of Europe that calls on sports organizations to exclude Russian athletes from international competitions. Upcoming events include the world figure skating championships next month, the World Cup qualifiers this spring, and the world track and field championships in Oregon in July.
World Athletics is unique in that it has taken a tough stance against the Russian doping myth since 2015. Russia has been limited to a handful of athletes in the last major championships, and that’s not expected to change until summer.
Now we are witnessing brutal acts in Ukraine. We can’t get Russia off the hook again without consequences, Helleland said.
But the biggest test will be how the IOC will react to Russia’s eligibility for the 2024 Summer Games in Paris.
Putin’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula and full-scale invasion of Ukraine came just after the closure of the Winter Olympics, with Russia achieving success on the playing field and a long gap before its next appearance on the sport’s biggest international stage. .
We’ve given him a free pass for over a decade, so why shouldn’t Putin think he can get away with it? said Masaro. Of course, the Olympics is one of them. And here we are again, and this time crossing the Rubicon the deepest.
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