Rio Olympics: Why a Moscow ban could extend far beyond just sports

Rio Olympics

Rio Olympics

Two weeks to the Rio Olympics and Russia’s participation is hanging by a thread after a slew of doping accusations. Faced with calls to be banned, some say it would be detrimental to Russia’s national pride and further polarise the giant of the East.

As the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on Tuesday announced it was seeking legal advice on possibly banning Russia from the 2016 Summer Olympics after a new report accused the sporting superpower of systematic and “state-dictated” doping, President Vladimir Putin immediately moved to suspend a string of officials named in the investigation.

But the Russian leader also warned of “a dangerous relapse of politics’ interference into sports”.

“Yes, formats of such interference have changed but its essence is the same—to make sports an instrument of geopolitical pressure, of forming a negative image of countries and nations,” Putin said. He was referring to when the US, at the height of the Cold War, led a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. In a tit-for-tat retribution, Moscow then initiated a boycott of the 1984 summer games in Los Angeles.

Putin added that while doping has no room in sports, “the Olympic movement which is playing a colossal uniting role for the humankind may once again be driven to the brink of a split”.

Big Red Machine

To many foreign policy experts, Moscow’s reaction comes as no surprise. Participation in international sporting events is, and almost always has been, about so much than just racking up medals. Especially for a top-athlete producing nation like Russia.

“There are different pillars to Russia’s national pride: The first one is the army, for which people have an enormous respect. Also very important are the country’s sports stars. Sport is a Russian soft power,” Martin Kragh, head of the Russia and Eurasia programme at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, told FRANCE 24.

“Almost everyone old enough to remember the 1980s can recall the names of the Russian ice hockey players from back then,” he said, referring to the former Soviet Union’s Red Army hockey team, which was also known as the “Big Red Machine”.

The fact that the world would gather around their TV sets to watch the US and Russia play each other despite a diplomatic stand-off between the two countries underscores the importance sports has on a political level.

“It’s sports diplomacy,”Kragh said. “During the Cold War, for example, sports events were some of the first domains where otherwise frozen relations could start to warm up again. From sports and chess tournaments, political dialogue could sometimes follow. Sports events are very important out of a diplomatic viewpoint.”

And, he said, should Russia, whose track and field team and weightlifters have already been excludedfrom the upcoming Olympics due to doping and corruption accusations, be banned altogether, it would have far-reaching consequences — both domestically and internationally.

“It would be a huge blow for the country. I don’t think it would lead to unrest or anything, but it would certainly lead to great discontent among Russian people. Russian officials have already begun to portray the allegations to make them look as if the United States and other Western powers are against Russia, and that they want to prevent Russia from achieving success,” Kragh said.

‘West out to marginalise Russia’

The report released by the independent World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) on Monday confirmed allegations made earlier this year by the former head of the Moscow Anti-Doping Laboratory, Grigory Rodchenkov.

In an interview with the New York Times, Rodchenkov said that dozens of Russian athletes had been doping during the Winter Olympics in Sochi – all with the help and oversight by the Russian sports ministry and the national intelligence service, the FSB.

Putin on Monday said Russia were taking the accusations outlined in the report seriously, but noted they were “based on the testimony of one person, a man with scandalous reputation”.

The conclusions of the report, however, triggered WADA and a string of sports groups and anti-doping organisations, including in the US, Canada, Germany, Japan and New Zealand, to call on the IOC to consider banning Russia altogether from this year’s summer games, to be held August 5 – 21 in Brazil .

Following Tuesday’s meeting, the IOC said it would set up a disciplinary commission investigating Russia’s Olympic participation and demanded re-tests of all the Russian athletes that took part in the Sochi winter games.

It also called for a “freeze” on major international sports events scheduled to be held in the country and said it was seeking legal advice on the possibility of banning its athletes from the summer games.

On a geopolitical level, Kragh said that the Russian doping scandal comes at a time where relations between Russia and the West are already sour. The threat of a ban will further fuel Russia’s view that the West is out to marginalise and hurt the country, he said.

“In In the current situation, it will reinforce the low diplomatic relations and existing polarisation,” Kragh said. “This is why it will be very important for international sports organizations to show and explain why certain decisions have been taken, and what the evidence is.”