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When faced with accusations and bans in the last four years over systemic doping in major athletic competitions, Russia has defaulted to a standard line: The ban is all part of an orchestrated Western campaign to demonize the country.
But when the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) this week hit Russia with a new four-year ban, over its failure to clear up issues related to an alleged massive state-sponsored doping scheme at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, something different happened. Many Russian athletes broke from the old script and put the blame not on the West, but on the state for failing to reform the system. They are demanding public explanations and accountability from their authorities, and their voices are being sympathetically covered even in Kremlin-backed media.
“I am with WADA on this one,” says Alexander Tikhonov, a legendary Soviet biathlete. “Leading Russian sports officials have not made sufficient efforts to resolve this doping problem. A fish rots from the head down. ... And I have no doubt that this scandal will keep rolling on, because the same people who were involved in doping are still in place.”
When the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) banned Russia this week from officially participating in major global sporting events for four years, Russian leadership was quick to return to its standard official line: that the ban is all part of an orchestrated Western campaign to demonize the country.
But that argument is getting much less public traction than it did before.
In a remarkable change, now the ire of leading Russian athletes is being directed mainly at their own sports authorities who promised and signally failed to reform the system, make things right with WADA, and restore Russia to its former place as a leading global sports power. Many Russian sports figures, who have endured at least three Olympic cycles of bans and stigmatization, are demanding public explanations and accountability from their authorities, and their voices are being sympathetically covered even in Kremlin-backed media.
“I am with WADA on this one,” says Alexander Tikhonov, a legendary Soviet biathlete who won four Olympic gold medals in brighter times. “Leading Russian sports officials have not made sufficient efforts to resolve this doping problem. A fish rots from the head down. No one has been punished: no athletes, no coaches, no sports officials. And I have no doubt that this scandal will keep rolling on, because the same people who were involved in doping are still in place.
“Sports is the face of a country, yet we are losing the reputation of a country that can compete with the U.S. and other giants of sport. It’s in everyone’s interests that this be cleaned up, and our credibility restored.”
“No other way but to accept the conditions”
The new ban was imposed over the failure of Russia’s anti-doping agency, RUSADA, to clear up unresolved issues relating to an alleged massive state-sponsored doping scheme at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. It means that Russian teams will be barred from participating in next year’s Tokyo Summer Olympics, and the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing. They will also be barred from the next IAAF World Athletic Championships in Doha, Qatar, in 2021 and, depending on what the international soccer federation FIFA decides, from the 2022 World Cup, also in Qatar.
Russian athletes who test clean and have no record of doping will be allowed to take part as individuals, but with no right to display national symbols or have the Russian anthem played when they win. Many seem resigned to doing things that way for the foreseeable future.
“There is no other way for us but to accept the conditions, go out there, and win,” says Andrei Rodionenko, head coach of the Russian national gymnastics team. “We have already been living with this for some time. Before the 2016 Rio Olympics, we actually boarded the plane without knowing if we would be permitted to compete or not, even though all our athletes were certifiably clean. On that occasion, we were allowed. Now, barely six months before the Tokyo Games, that whole situation repeats itself. What can we do about this? Carry on, keep training, stay prepared. And that’s what we are going to do.”
That attitude prevailed at last year’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, where some Russian athletes participating as “neutrals” performed surprisingly well. In one case, a victorious Russian hockey team defied the rules by locking arms and singing the Russian national anthem. Even though Russians came in 13th in the overall medal count, a public opinion poll found that a whopping 89% of Russians expressed “pride” in the performance of their athletes.
But Tatiana Tarasova, a famous Russian figure skating coach, warns that spirit may not be sustainable.
“Without being able to compete as Russians, there will be no interest in holding sports competitions,” she says. “It’s possible this decision will cause some promising Russian athletes to emigrate. People will stop sending their children into sports in large numbers, as they do now. We’ll lose it eventually, even if it isn’t felt immediately. It’s a terrible pity. Right now we have impressive young women who are winning at figure skating competitions, and this decision will spoil their lives.”
Why doping is different
President Vladimir Putin slammed the WADA decision, saying that Russia will appeal it within three weeks. And he repeated the argument that banning an entire country from taking part in global sporting events is “collective punishment,” tarring the innocent along with the guilty. “The key thing, and everyone is in agreement here, any punishment has to be individual, has to be targeted based on what a particular individual has done,” he said.
Mr. Putin has spoken cautiously since the doping issue first erupted almost four years ago, admitting that problems do exist and insisting that Russia will move to clean up its act. That’s a sharp contrast, experts say, to his indifference about other recent humiliations, such as Russia being kicked out of the Group of Eight industrial countries a few years ago over the annexation of Crimea.
“Russia’s position as a sports superpower is a core part of the national identity. The Russian public feels very strongly about it, and the Russian state has traditionally seen it as a key means of projecting soft power,” says Sergei Strokan, an international affairs columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant. “Most Russians unambiguously support Putin on issues like Crimea. But doping, now, that’s a very different kind of thing, one that’s much harder for the average person to rationalize. People don’t want to lose Russia’s accustomed place in global sports, and certainly not over something like accusations of doping.”
Valery Gazzaev, a former soccer star who is now a deputy of the State Duma, insists that the Russian sports establishment has made major efforts to fix its problems. He says RUSADA, the Russian anti-doping agency, has been reformed, but WADA is still punishing it for transgressions made several years ago.
“It’s not fair that they are punishing us over an audit of results from the Moscow anti-doping laboratory from 2012 to 2015,” Mr. Gazzaev says. “It’s a huge injustice. WADA’s selective and negative attitude to Russia can only be viewed as political.”
In fact, WADA argues that the four-year ban is being imposed because the supposedly reformed RUSADA tampered with evidence, creating “an extremely serious case of noncompliance with the requirement to provide an authentic copy of the Moscow data, with several aggravating features.”
“Some commonsense voices being heard”
What does seem new is the large number of leading Russian athletes who are now speaking out to demand accountability from sports officials whom they blame for ruining their careers. That includes leading Russian high jump athlete Maria Lasitskene, whose scathing open letter has been widely cited in the Russian media.
Some find that hopeful, others not so much.
“What I really like is the reaction here at home to this decision,” says Ivan Isaev, editor of Ski Sport, an online news service. “We still have that hysterical ‘patriotic chorus’ blaming it all on hostile, conniving foreigners, but now there are some commonsense voices being heard.
“Leading athletes are asking out loud why they have to suffer these blows while the people who are guilty hide in the shadows,” he says. “The number of these voices is growing, and that is really great.”