Russia is a nation under siege. At least that’s how it seems to many Russians.
As if economic sanctions and NATO on its doorstep weren’t enough, Russians now are facing the unthinkable prospect that their entire Olympic team could be banned from the Summer Games in Rio.
For President Vladimir Putin it’s galling.
More than anyone, he has been the face of Russia’s indomitable sports machine. He personally lobbied for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia and spent a mind-boggling $50 billion on the games and its facilities.
The day after the Sochi games ended, he congratulated the Russian medalists – who had won more gold and silver than any other nation — for their “triumphant performance.”
“The Olympic Games are much more than just an international competition,” he told them. “Countries battle here to win the title of most sporting nation, and being among the leaders is a matter of national prestige.”
Doping cover up
Now, the Russian doping scandal, complete with international investigations and a report with specific charges of a doping cover-up at Sochi, are putting Russia’s — and Putin’s — prestige and credibility on the line.
Sixty-seven members of Russia’s track and field team are banned from the Rio games and the Kremlin is bracing for Sunday’s final decision by the IOC on whether it will ban the country’s entire Olympic team.
Russian officials and some athletes are furious.
“Corrupt judges! How can you deprive clean athletes of their dream?” Russian Minister of Sport Vitaly Mutko, Tweeted.
Star pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, who learned this week that she will not be going to Rio, told Russian TV “I think it’s 100% politicized. 100%!”
But Putin’s reaction has been more nuanced.
Caught in a difficult balancing act, he wants to show the world that he takes allegations of doping seriously but, for his domestic audience, he must stand tall and not bow to what he says is severe pressure from the United States and other western countries.
Since the first allegations emerged, Putin has denied any state-sponsored doping in Russia, repeating, almost verbatim, the same phrase he told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in June: “I can tell you with full responsibility that we’re against any doping.”
This week he put it this way:
“The official position of Russian authorities – the government, president, all of us — is that there’s no place and can’t be any place for doping in sports. Sport should be clean, and athletes’ health should be firmly protected.”
Friday, he asked the Russian Olympic Committee to create an independent anti-doping commission, vowing to “cooperate closely with IOC’s disciplinary committee, WADA and other international sport federations for Olympic and non-Olympic sports.”
But Putin also is subtly undermining the believability of the man who originally raised allegations of the doping scheme, Grigory Rodchenkov, Russia’s former anti-doping director.
“Accusations against Russian athletes are built on the testimony of one man,” Putin said this week. “A man with a scandalous reputation.”
And Putin has a point: criminal charges were opened against Rodchenkov in 2012 for violating anti-doping laws. The case was dropped, then another one was opened this June.
But Putin, a former K.G.B. officer also has made no mention of the allegations in the report commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, that the F.S.B., the successor agency to the K.G.B., directly helped to switch out urine samples in Sochi.
Russia is a country where admitting fault is not part of the political lexicon and President Putin has turned the tables, accusing Russia’s accusers of “politicizing” sports.
“We are seeing a dangerous recurrence of political interference in sport,” he said July 18. “Yes, forms of such intervention have changed, but the essence is still the same: to make sport an instrument of geopolitical pressure, the formation of a negative image of the countries and people.”
The state-controlled media have picked up that theme and most Russians CNN has spoken with appear to believe it.
An article on the website of one TV network blares the headline: “An order from the United States or Rodchenkov’s revenge: Who unleashed the doping war against Russia.”
Russian anti-doping experts are being quoted in the media, challenging details of the WADA report.
There’s another attitude toward doping allegations that many Russians seem to share, what used to be called in the Soviet Union “whataboutism,” in other words, “who are you to call the kettle black?”
Here’s how pole vaulter Yelena Isanbayeva put it to Russian TV:
“Doping existed 20 years ago, and ten years ago, and everyone knows it very well because athletes were disqualified, including from other countries, but everyone went out there and competed, and there was no problem. And now the international community all together, including WADA, has turned toward Russia, how can you not say it’s politicized?”
The Russian Olympic Committee, also is standing firm, challenging the IOC to make a “fair and unbiased decision” Sunday and allow “clean” Russian athletes to take part in the Rio Olympics.
Meanwhile, farewell celebrations for Russian athletes going to Rio are on hold.