On Tuesday, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach announced that the Russian National Olympic Committee is banned from upcoming 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, an unprecedented punishment handed down in response to the country’s systematic, state-sponsored doping program.
This is the first time in history an entire country has been barred from the Olympics for doping, although the Russian Paralympic team was banned from the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
Some Russian olympians will still have a path to compete independently in PyeongChang in February under the official designation of “Olympic Athlete from Russia.” Athletes who can sufficiently demonstrate they are clean will be allowed to play under the Olympic flag, and the Olympic anthem would play in any ceremony where they win a gold medal. It is similar to the arrangement, first used in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, for refugee athletes.
Two top Russian sporting officials — Vitaly Mutko, the Minister of Sport, and Yuri Nagornykh, the Deputy Minister of Sport — have been banned from the Olympic Games for life.
Now, all eyes turn to Russian President Vladimir Putin to see how he will respond. The Olympics are a huge source of national pride for Russians, and Putin rebuilt his reputation domestically atop the success of the Sochi Games, a foundation that is now directly undermined by the accusations of systematic doping. The biggest question at hand: will Putin force all Russian athletes — even the clean ones — to boycott the Olympics?
How we got here
This saga all began in 2014, when a German documentary, “Top Secret Doping: How Russia makes its winners,” put forth allegations of widespread use of performance enhancing drugs and blood doping by the Russian track and field team. The film prompted an investigation by the World Anti-Doping Agency, which reported in late 2015 and early 2016 that not only did Russia’s track and field team systematically dope, but the International Association of Athletics (IAAF) knew about it, and actively tried to cover it up.
In May of 2016, the scope of the scandal broadened when the New York Times reported that Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the director of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory during the 2014 Sochi Olympics, helped Russia pull off “one of the most elaborate — and successful — doping ploys in sports history,” with the support of the Russian government. That doping program helped Russia walk away from Sochi with 33 medals, more than any other country.
Following those revelations, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) commissioned an independent report by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren. That report, released last summer just a few weeks before the Rio Olympics, found that the Russian Ministry of Sport erased at least 312 positive doping tests between 2011 and 2015, and that the plot involved more than 1,000 athletes. In a Netflix documentary about the scandal, whistleblower Rodchenkov said that at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, about 30 of Russia’s 73 medals —or roughly 40 percent —were dirty. By London 2012, that number had increased to 50 percent.
WADA recommended that Russia be banned from Rio last summer, but the IOC ignored this suggestion and permitted Russian athletes to compete as long as they could prove they weren’t doping before the Olympics. Russia submitted a list of 389 athletes for competition, and 278 were cleared to compete by the IOC.
Top Russian government officials maintain their innocence, and refuse to accept the findings of any investigation that concluded there was a state-sponsored doping program in the country. This is a big reason why, last month, WADA concluded that Russia’s anti-doping agency still wasn’t compliant with the world anti-doping code.
The IOC has been investigating Russia’s doping program on its own. Heading into today’s announcement, anti-doping agencies from 37 other countries had called for a blanket ban on Russian athletes competing in the Olympics. According to documents obtained by ESPN, whistleblower and former RUSADA staff member Vitaly Stepanov said harsh sanctions against Russia in 2018 would be the only thing to make an impact.
Anticipating Russia’s reaction
Many people view today’s decision by the IOC as a compromise — it sends a strong message to Russia, while still allowing athletes who have trained their whole lives for this moment to compete in South Korea. (Crucially, this most likely allows Russian figure skaters to compete in February — Rodcheknov says figure skaters did not participate in doping, and many of the biggest stars were still young teenagers during Sochi.)
But the compromise is not likely to appease Putin. On Wednesday, he is expected to announce whether or not Russia will stage a boycott on PyeongChang.
The Olympics are an extreme source of national pride for the Russians, and in recent weeks, as the IOC’s decision date moved closer, they have become more defiant than ever. Bonnie D. Ford of ESPN reported that, last week, photos of the Russian national team’s officially branded apparel were unveiled, “showing men’s and women’s sweatshirts emblazoned with the slogans ‘Russians Did It!’ and ‘I Don’t Do Doping.'”
— Chris Brown (@CBCChrisBrown) December 5, 2017
Pundit on Russian state TV just now: "If IOC decides (on a neutral flag for Russian athletes), that's comparable to genocide because it affects a large number of citizens of a particular country."
— James Ellingworth (@jellingworth) December 5, 2017
As Rachel Axon wrote for USA Today, part of Russia’s defiance here is because for them, this isn’t just about doping, or even sports; it’s about power.
“It’s about the narrative that Putin has brought Russia up from its knees and restored it to the status of the great power it had during Soviet days,” Jeffrey Mankoff, deputy director and senior fellow of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, told Axon. “And if the International Olympic Committee is calling into question the means by which they did that, it’s calling into question the basic parameters of that whole story about Russia’s resurgence and the role that Putin played in bringing it about.”
That’s why this compromise is unlikely to be acceptable to Putin — because it destroys a narrative he has spent so long concocting. However, if he leans into this as yet another example of persecution from the West — along the same lines as the claims that Russia interfered in the U.S election last year — he could use it to strengthen his other narrative: that this is all a conspiracy.
No matter what Putin announces on Wednesday, there are going to be many individuals who feel betrayed. At the end of the day, there are no real winners in this situation, only medals to be earned, and others to be stripped.