Grigory Dukor/Reuters
Russian team sings their national anthem while wearing their gold medals at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics on Feb. 25.

For Russians, Pyeongchang was a success. But doping's shadow still hard to escape.

The Olympic ban made Russian athletes' victories in Pyeongchang that much more dramatic for the Russian public. But the underlying issues over doping remain unresolved with fewer than 100 days until Russia hosts the 2018 World Cup.

Russian TV audiences were riveted, and social media exploded, when a hockey team of “athletes from Russia” won gold by defeating a German team in the final days of the Pyeongchang Olympics and then, in defiance of the ban on Russian national symbols, locked arms and began to belt out the Russian national anthem.

That, plus the record-breaking performances of two Russian figure skaters, Alina Zagitova and Yevgenia Medvedeva, appears to have created an entirely unexpected spike in Russian national pride. That may not have been the intention of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in winnowing the number of Russian athletes cleared to take part in the Games and denying them the right to display Russian symbols.

“You know how, in movies, when a character has to overcome great difficulties and perform against unfair odds, that makes the audience root for him,” says Dmitry Babich, an analyst with the state news agency Sputnik. “We didn't even know until practically the last moment whether any of our athletes would be allowed to go to Pyeongchang. That created a lot of dramatic tension, which was released when some of our people had amazing victories.”

Yet the underlying issues that created the crisis, with very serious allegations of state-sponsored doping made by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) following Russia's Sochi triumph, have yet to be resolved. The Kremlin and WADA remain at odds over what happened in Sochi. While the Russian public is firmly against doping, the underdog victories of Russian athletes in Pyeongchang have given them little incentive to pressure Russian sporting officials further.

Indeed, with Russia set to host the soccer World Cup in 11 cities in under 100 days time, Russian observers say that the Kremlin may be hoping simply to get through the summer event with a minimum of drama.

Doping and Russian pride

According to the IOC, the goal of prohibiting the Russian national team and all but a specially cleared handful of Russian athletes from taking part in the Pyeongchang Games was to punish Russian authorities and athletes – including the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) and the Russian Ministry of Sport – for their role in widespread, organized doping at the Sochi Games, as outlined in the MacLaren Report commissioned almost two years ago. Presumably, there was also a hope that the ban would make Russian citizens themselves feel benched and to focus their minds on compelling the Kremlin to respond those doping charges.

But that clearly has not worked. Despite coming in a dismal 13th place in the overall Olympic medal count at Pyeongchang, a poll conducted last week by the state-funded VTsIOM public opinion agency found that 89 percent of Russians are very pleased with the performance of Russian athletes. That is even greater than the 82 percent who lauded the successes of their national team at Sochi in 2014, where Russia came in first in the medal count.

“There was a big debate in top political circles about whether we should even swallow all of the humiliations, lower our heads, and let some of our athletes go to Pyeongchang as ‘neutral’ players rather than a proud Russian team,” says Sergei Strokan, international affairs columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant. “Now there is a feeling that we made the right decision to go, despite all the obstacles. That small number of Russians allowed to participate in Pyeongchang performed almost as well as the entire Team Russia did at Vancouver in 2010. And the public seems to be really happy with how our people performed there.”

Grigory Dukor/Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin (l.) shakes hands with Russian ice hockey player and gold medalist of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games Vasili Koshechkin after decorating him with the Order of Friendship during a ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow on Feb. 28.

To be sure, opinion polls consistently show that Russians abhor doping by wide majorities, consider it a bad thing, and expect their leaders to correct the situation. President Vladimir Putin insisted in a Kremlin meeting last week with Russian Olympic champions that the country is making great strides in that direction.

“We have already done a lot here in Russia,” he said. “An independent commission headed by [former IOC Vice President] Vitaly Smirnov is proceeding in a responsible and productive way, strictly abiding by the concept that the struggle against doping or the doping evil must be uncompromising. I am convinced that all members of the Olympic family are interested in making this the overriding principle.”

Last week the International Olympic Committee (IOC) agreed to reinstate Russia as a full member, even though there has been no admission of wrongdoing from the Kremlin. That probably signals widespread weariness with the standoff, and a desire to move on.

But WADA, without whose certification of the Russian anti-doping agency RUSADA no Russian athletes can be cleared to perform in international events, is digging in its heels and even threatening Russia's right to host the World Cup unless the Kremlin publicly accepts the findings of the MacLaren Report.

Mr. Putin has regularly denied the report's allegations, and he made no mention of them at the meeting with Olympians. It is generally believed by Russian analysts that he will never give in to WADA's demands.

A split for sports and state?

The Kremlin may be losing interest in hosting big sports events as a way of courting global public opinion anyway. Putin staked his personal reputation on the 2014 Sochi Games, pumping about $50 billion into staging them, only to see everything quickly turn sour. The Kiev overthrow of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych happened as those Games were wrapping up, leading to the Russian annexation of Crimea, Western sanctions, and an East-West geopolitical crisis that continues to worsen. Russia's first place showing at Sochi has been tarnished by the WADA allegations, and the serial disgrace of Russian athletes that has persisted through two Olympic cycles so far.

State support for Russian sports, while still strong, no longer approaches the massive levels it enjoyed in Soviet times. “Now private business is moving in to substitute for the state in many sports,” says Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Mercator Group, a Moscow political consultancy. “Of course there will always be eager young people who want to achieve, but the landscape is changing.”

Years of exclusion and disappointment for Russian athletes have also taken their toll. “Of course, we could have done much better at Pyeongchang if our whole team had been allowed to take part,” says Oleg Shamonayev, an editor at Sport Express, Moscow's leading sports newspaper. “But even without all those obstacles, I don't think we could have hoped for better than 5th place. After being number one at Sochi, that would be hard to take. I don't believe our athletics can restore its former positions.”

Mr. Strokan says the Kremlin will probably be satisfied if the upcoming World Cup comes off without any scandals or negative incidents.

“Of course everything is hostage to politics,” he says. “We're living in a time of intensifying information war, a deeply unhealthy relationship especially between Russia and the US, recriminations of all kinds flying back and forth every day, and you imagine that these high-profile sports events in almost a dozen Russian cities can take place in a happy, nonpolitical atmosphere? I think in the Kremlin they are just bracing themselves and hoping for the best.”

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