As I write this article, I am eagerly and excitedly live-streaming Olympic figure skating - nothing gets me tearing up more than a story like Mirai Nagasu’s: left off the 2014 Olympic team, on Sunday afternoon she became the first American woman to land a triple axel (three-and-a-half rotations in the air) in Olympic competition. It was a triumphant performance, and she was the clear standout on the American figure skating team.
At the same time, however, something feels wrong about the Olympics this year. Namely, that Russian athletes are allowed to compete together, as a team, despite Olympic sanctions against Russia for widespread and state-sponsored doping during the 2014 Olympics hosted in Sochi. During the 2014 Olympics - which were a massive success for Russia as the host - Russian officials painstakingly took steps to take the drug-tainted urine of dozens of athletes and replace it with clean urine collected months earlier. The doping resulted in a ban from the International Olympic Committee, however this ban is hardly a ban at all, and it ruins the integrity of Olympic sport.
In Pyeongchang, already well underway, Russia as a nation is banned; however, individual athletes are allowed to compete under the name “Olympic Athletes from Russia.” They may not wear Russian gear with the Russian flag, and, should an athlete win a gold medal, the Olympic anthem, not the Russian anthem, will play. Admirably, the IOC wanted to allow “clean athletes” to compete in the games, however I argue that these restrictions do not go far enough in punishing Russia for such systematic abuse in international sport.
While I agree that individual and pair teams (such as ice dancers) should still have been allowed to compete, Russia should not have been able to field a hockey team or even compete in the team figure skating event. If the IOC wants to prevent Russia as a nation from being represented in Pyeongchang, these “Olympic athletes” should truly be neutral and not be allowed to associate with each other and recognized as one unified group. The Olympic Athletes from Russia will still have their medal count noted as one country’s team. They are still Russia, in all but the team jackets.
For Russian president Vladimir Putin, he surely is irritated at the sanctions the IOC levied against Russia, but probably not furious, for the reasons mentioned above. In all but name only, Russian athletes still get to compete and gather up medals for the country. At the same time, however, Putin will certainly look to retaliate against the International Olympic Committee and the United States for this slight against him and his athletes. Russia has done it before.
Russia won the most medals out of any country at the 2014 Olympics, but soon, the Russian celebrations began to unravel. Russia’s anti-doping expert at the Sochi games, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, was fired from his position after reports from German authorities which began a formal complaint process with the World Anti-Doping Agency. Dr. Roschenkov fled Russia to Los Angeles, fearing for his life, and began sharing his story in full - meticulously documented in day-by-day diaries and spreadsheets from the Sochi Games - with the New York Times. Moving to the United States and sharing his tactics with the American press has led many, including some in the US intelligence community, to believe that Russian interference in the 2016 election is directly connected to the doping scandal. Russia believes the sanctions against them from the IOC are, essentially, an “American-led attack.” Of course, this is not entirely about the Olympics; rather, the investigation into the doping during the 2014 Games are but one facet of a years-long campaign by the United States to undermine Putin’s leadership and elections in Russia.
For Putin, who is constantly working to promote Russia’s stature on the world stage, international sport figures as means to this goal. To host the Olympics in 2014 and now the football World Cup later this year is an incredible feat for the country, and perhaps Putin’s scheme to tamper with some one hundred samples in 2014 would have paid off, only to be foiled by the United States. Russia was extremely lucky that its ban from Pyeongchang was so light: nationalist fever still grips the country, and its athletes (especially its ladies figure skaters, favorites for gold and silver) will be celebrated upon their return home. At the same time, however, Putin will still use his anger with the West, especially the United States, to meddle even further with our democracy. We should be immensely wary of any interference this November in the midterm elections.
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