From Beijing to Paris — Russia’s fractious relations with sports

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At the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, Russians had to compete under the flag of Russia

At the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, Russians had to compete under the flag of Russia’s Olympic Committee (Anthony WALLACE)

Doping, sanctions, Ukraine, an escalating war of words: Sporting powerhouse Russia’s behaviour since breaking the Olympic truce in 2008 with the invasion of Georgia has taxed the patience of sporting bodies.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who revelled in being photographed competing in his favoured event of judo, viewed sporting excellence and hosting major events as central to his programme.

His country has hosted the two biggest sporting events in recent years, seen at the time as Russia opening up to the world.

However, Putin — the first to phone Thomas Bach when he was elected International Olympic Committee (IOC) president in 2013 — and Russia are as isolated as ever due to the invasion of Ukraine in February, 2022.

AFP Sport picks out the key events in the tempestuous history between Russia and sports:

– Crimea annexed after Sochi –

Putin smiled broadly as the curtain came down on the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February 2014.

Russia had come top of the medals table in a Games symbolising how in just over two decades since the fall of Communism the country had opened up.

However, behind the smile Putin was plotting a move that was to result in a dramatic chilling of relations with the West.

Several days later Russia annexed the Crimea which had been designated Ukrainian territory by the Soviet regime in 1954 and rubberstamped in 1997 and also armed separatists in the Donbas region of Ukraine.

It was Putin’s retaliation for the pro-Western Maidan Revolution in Kyiv which ousted the corrupt pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych.

– “State-sponsored doping scandal” –

2014 which began so well for Putin was to turn into an annus horribilis internationally for the former KGB officer.

The shine was taken off the medals from the Sochi Games as Russia was accused of tampering with their own athletes’ doping samples.

The extent of the state-sponsored programme was exposed by the World Anti-Doping Agency, which stated 30 sports between 2011-15 were involved and even the Russian secret service (FSB) were implicated.

Russia rejected the accusations outright claiming it was a Western plot despite first-hand testimony from whistleblowers involved in the system, and several enquiries proving it was the case.

The scandal took an even more sinister turn when two former heads of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (Rusada) died of heart attacks a week apart in suspicious circumstances.

Their deaths set the alarm bells ringing among their colleagues and sparked the flight to the United States of Grigory Rodchenkov, the former director of the anti-doping laboratory in Moscow.

From the relative safety of his adopted home he produced damning testimony of how he had orchestrated for years the concealment of Russian dopers in co-ordination with the sports ministry and the FSB.

In December 2017, the IOC suspended the Russian National Olympic Committee.

– World Cup brings lull in hostilities –

Months later, despite the sporting and geopolitical scandals, FIFA president Gianni Infantino was shaking hands with Putin as Russia hosted the World Cup.

The annexation of Crimea was also set aside as several heads of state attended the opening ceremony, although some boycotted it, including the British government and royalty.

A highly successful hosting drew an estimated three million foreign visitors in what seemed like a turning of a page for a Russia once again willing to use a sporting event to show itself off to the world.

Further good news followed as in September WADA lifted Rusada’s suspension on condition they were granted access to the database of the Moscow laboratory.

– Falsified doping data –

The second honeymoon did not last long as a year later WADA revealed the data from the laboratory transmitted to their investigators had been falsified. Putin dismissed the accusations.

His denial was brutally undermined by the unlikely source of Yuri Ganous, Rusada’s managing director, who publicly accused sporting authorities of altering the data so as to protect the cheats.

The Kremlin were far from amused by his intervention and he was sacked in August 2020.

Four months after Ganous’s firing Russia were barred from the Olympics for two years.

Careful not to punish the athletes for the sins of their bosses, Russians were able to compete at the Tokyo Summer Games in 2021 — delayed by Covid — and the Beijing winter edition in 2022 albeit under a neutral flag.

– Invasion of Ukraine –

Unlike in 2008, Putin waited till the Beijing Games had officially ended before launching his invasion of Ukraine, with Belarus’ support, on February 24, 2022.

Sports federations took differing approaches, with World Athletics imposing a blanket ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes, while tennis said they had to compete as neutrals.

The question for the Paris Games was whether they should be banned outright or would the Ukrainians choose to boycott them if Russians were permitted to appear.

The IOC laid down strict parameters when they gave the go-ahead for them to compete in December last year as neutral athletes but only if they have no ties to the security and armed forces.

In a fiery broadside, the Russian National Olympic Committee responded: “War has been declared on Russian sport.”


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