Breaking news, everyone! Russia has cheated at sports. Again. Russia has been punished. Again. Russia may actually skate. Again. And Russia will absolutely, positively, without any hesitation or compunction, will cheat again the first chance it gets. Again. And again. And again. Here is the deal…
Today, the World Anti-Doping Agency has officially banned Russia from all major international competitions for four years. Russia cannot host any major events or even participate in them under its own flag and name. Russian athletes can be allowed to compete if they can prove they are clean and aren’t a part of the country’s state-sponsored sports system.
For those who don’t follow sports (shame on you), the TL;DR version of the scandal is as follows: Russia got caught doping its athletes up to their gills via a state-directed program. It was punished and chastised, forced to compete in the 2018 Winter Olympics under a neutral flag and had to promise to clean up its act posthaste. It turned out, though, that – surprise! – Russia wasn’t going to do any such thing. Instead of reforming their corrupt system, Russian sports officials engaged in falsifying documentation to create an appearance of propriety. They got caught again. Hence, the new punishment.
Except, of course, that Russia has a tendency to either get slapped on the wrist or alleviate the harshness of proposed measures. Most folks in the West, for example, believed that it should have been a blanket ban on Russian athletes in 2018, but the International Olympic Committee wanted to go as easy as possible on the cash cow that is Vladimir Putin’s regime. In the end, Russia was able to send its delegation under a “neutral” name of “Olympic Athletes from Russia” (a careful reader will notice that, as neutral names go, this one left a bit of room for improvement). It certainly didn’t prevent the “OAR” hockey team from winning gold in the NHL-deprived tournament against the mighty Germany and then using this incredible triumph against the odds to prop up Putin’s 2018 reelection campaign.
So, you can be forgiven if you take today’s ruling by WADA with a KAMAZ truck bed full of pickle barrels of salt. The IOC hasn’t made its decision yet, and even if it deviates from its “appease Russia at all costs” policy, Russia can steal plead its case to the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS), which is also known for its decisively pro-Russian slant. CAS did, for instance, reinstate most of Russia’s 2014 Winter Games golds, taken away in the original doping scandal. Note that even now, after Russia brazenly kept cheating and covering up its shenanigans, the blanket ban isn’t on the table. In the worst-case scenario, Russian athletes will still compete in the 2020 Tokyo Games and in the Winter Games of 2022 in Beijing, albeit still without the flag or anthem.
More profound could be the measures that prohibit Russia from competing in or hosting other major sports events. This would, in principle, mean no European Football Championship matches in 2020, no World Hockey Championship in 2023, no chance to bid for the 2032 Olympics, and even if the national side qualifies for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, it would have to compete under a “neutral” name. Of course, this presupposes that the IIHF and FIFA (the governing bodies of world hockey and soccer, respectively) are not entirely pro-Russia, which they most certainly are.
But even if all the recommended punishments are implemented, would that actually mean anything? Would Russia’s be effectively compelled to change its behavior? All evidence points to one obvious answer: not a chance. Not even close. Forget about it. Russia will keep cheating, and there is nothing anyone can ever do about it, or at least while the current political system is in place. It’s not a difficult conclusion to make, either. I have both direct and circumstantial evidence that proves this comprehensively.
First of all, if you judge by the reaction in the Russian political circles and in the state-controlled media, the only conclusions Russia is making from this mess are as follows:
* everyone is crooked, not just us
* we are scapegoated for political reasons
* the West can’t beat us and is getting desperate
* we really need to find a way to cover our tracks better.
The last conclusion was openly broadcast by Russia’s leading sports newspaper, Sport-Express (full disclosure: I was its foreign correspondent in North America from 2006 to 2014), when it responded to the latest outrage with the headline “Why Couldn’t We Find Better Hackers?”
Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, in a press-conference this week, reiterated all the points above, saying that WADA is waging a political war against Russia. And, in case Russia’s intentions weren’t obvious enough, I myself was privy to practically a confession from a top Russian sports official just yesterday.
The Voice of America’s Russian service had invited me to be a part of a panel discussing the WADA decision, where one of the other guests was Dmitry Volkov, the head of Russian Swimming. After going through the greatest hits of state propaganda (at one point he called WADA “a bunch of derelicts” who have lost all credibility and must be immediately disbanded so that a new body could be created, with Russia playing a role), he shared the government’s plan to continue on the glorious path to ill-gotten Olympic gold.
According to Volkov, Western athletes are allowed to compete while doped with impunity by falsifying “therapeutic exemptions” (affidavits that state that an athlete is allowed to take a controlled substance due to a diagnosed medical condition or physical impediment). Volkov’s assertion is that Western physician, in violation of their professional ethics, issue fake therapeutic exemptions in 90% of the cases. Despite offering no evidence of this (Volkov has named Michael Phelps as one alleged doper), the official then proceeded to disclose that Russia will now engage in its own effort to produce therapeutic exemptions en masse, so that its athletes could compete “on equal footing” with the vile and corrupt Westerners.
Sounds like a lot of remorse and a desire to fly on a straight an narrow to me.
The most surprising thing about this entire fiasco is that it is indeed still surprising. No, it never ceases to amaze me at how amazed the West is every time Russia confirms its deep commitment to cheating at sports. At this point, it’s probably time to understand that Russia will cheat at sports because a) it can, b) the payoffs are much greater than risks, c) sports exist in Russia to support the political system, not the other way around.
The most important issue to understand here is that Russia doesn’t really like sport for sport’s sake. Russia likes sport for its gold medals and for the propaganda value that can be extracted from them. This is primarily true of the Russian state, but also, to a degree, of the citizenry who have been conditioned to closely follow international medal counts and still think of major competitions as “defending the honor of the Motherland” (an actual, often-used term). Sports have always existed in Russia as a part of the country’s foreign policy, a way to establish itself as a major power and a way to spread internal propaganda of the ruling regime.
All sports in Russia is government-run, and all athletes and sports officials must pay fealty to the government. The government finances all “important” disciplines (only very few sports, such as soccer, for example, can actually make money for private owners) and then gets to bask in the glory of its successes. Each Russian Olympic delegation is always officially sent on its way from Kremlin, after an address by Putin and a church service by the Patriarch of Moscow. Athletes are expected to offer their own praise of the dear leader before departing. All champions are then hosted by Putin upon their return, with gifts and state decorations lavished upon them. More laudatory rhetoric towards the powers that are follows.
All of this, it’s important to understand, is seen as normal by an average Russian. But not only this, mind you. Also, what goes into making this patriotic sausage. That is normal, too. And logical, when viewed from this totalitarian perspective. Athletes defend the honor of the Motherland, while the Motherland defends its athletes from being caught cheating.
The fact that the current system has shown cracks does not in any way mean that it will disappear. Sports in Russia can’t exist without the government. And Russia’s current government can’t exist without corruption. Winning carries enormous payoffs. Getting caught can always be spun into more patriotic hot air about the evil and scheming West.
And since international sports bodies just can’t lose such a lavishly-spending nation as Russia, the dance will just continue.
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