A ban of little substance: Russia’s hushed Winter Olympics

When the IOC banned Russia from this year’s Winter Olympics, many believed that a corner had been turned in the fight against doping. However, Russian athletes and flags have been ubiquitous in PyeongChang, causing doubters to question and onlookers to wonder whether the European powerhouse is really serving a punishment at all.

A ban of little substance: Russia’s hushed Winter Olympics

Last week, during one of the opening group games of the men’s ice hockey tournament at the ongoing Winter Olympics, Russian forward Kirill Kaprizov redirected Nikita Gusev’s wrist shot beyond Slovakian goaltender Branislav Konrad to double his team’s lead. As Kaprizov was congratulated by his jubilant teammates, the broadcast promptly cut to a cluster of Russian fans in the crowd, proudly wrapped in their country’s flag and defiantly waving their native white, blue and red scarfs.    

There was nothing particularly remarkable about this scene, nor about the many similar ones that have since been created across various events in which Russian athletes are competing at in PyeongChang. That is, of course, until you stop to remind yourself that Russia is in fact banned from this year’s Games, or is at least supposed to be.

Indeed, it was only three months ago that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) handed down a suspension to the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) after finding evidence supporting ‘the systemic manipulation of the anti-doping rules and system in Russia’ leading up to and during Sochi 2014.

That announcement, however, was accompanied by a decision to allow a number of clean athletes from Russia to compete in PyeongChang as ‘Olympic Athletes from Russia’ (OAR) - a number that would later amount to 169 Olympians, just 63 fewer than took part for the European powerhouse in Sochi. In all but name, then, Russia has been the third best-represented country at this year’s Winter Olympics, behind only the North American pairing of the United States and Canada. And it may be that, despite another failed doping test by one of the country’s athletes in South Korea, the Russian flag returns in time for Sunday’s closing ceremony.

Hiding in plain sight

Any attempt to neutralise Russia’s presence seems to have been acidified by an invasion of Russian fans who seem intent on making their support more influential than ever. “We're shouting so much that our voices are going,” said one fan, speaking to the Associated Press news agency. “We're just devoting ourselves to it and supporting our athletes, because there's not so many people here from our country,” added another.    

Russian athletes have also been warned from associating themselves with Russian flags, the country’s national anthem, emblem and symbols, which includes a ban on sharing or posting any such selfies or images on their social media pages. For many, though, that has proved less than problematic, with former figure skater and double gold medallist Maxim Trankov stating: “We are all Russian patriots, all athletes. It doesn't matter how we are called: Olympic Athletes from Russia or Team Russia. It doesn't matter because our homeland, it's Russia.”

Russian fans celebrate a goal for Team OAR against Norway

And already, at the time of writing, Team OAR have won 12 medals, which might not seem like many for one of the Winter Games’ traditional frontrunners, but surpasses the eight they were forecast to win by global sports data company Gracenote’s virtual medal table. Each Russian triumph, however, has been greeted with progressively louder murmurs of discontent among the global sporting community, with the most critical voices continuing to cast doubt over whether the country is really serving a proper punishment at all.       

To an extent, the IOC’s hands have been tied, although many remain frustrated that president Thomas Bach took until December last year to act, despite having evidence to do so 18 months earlier. Beyond that, though, striking the right balance between coming down hard on doping while honouring the right of clean athletes to compete was at best an unenviable task, and the outcome was never likely to be universally celebrated.

On top of that, imposing a blanket ban on a country as politically powerful as Russia will undoubtedly have been taken into account, especially when the case is compared to that of Kuwait at Rio 2016. No such allowances were made then for the Gulf nation, which was barred from the event for the comparatively lesser crime - certainly as far as fans and athletes are concerned - of its government interfering in the country’s Olympic affairs.  

Speaking to SportsPro in the immediate aftermath of the ROC’s suspension, World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) president Sir Craig Reedie said that while “the decision was the correct one”, the sanctions “clearly could have been worse”, touching on the view of those who believe that the IOC was too lenient towards a nation that had orchestrated one of the most notorious state-sponsored doping programmes in sporting history.

Cracks in the ice

It isn’t, though, just the IOC that needs to be held accountable for what has spiralled into a damaging affair for sporting integrity. In the build-up to PyeongChang, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) overturned the Olympic life bans of 28 Russian athletes, prompting British IOC member Adam Pengilly to label the decision “craven and spineless”, adding that “it is a desperate and dark day for sport, with cheats and thieves allowed to triumph”. 

Ironically, Pengilly has since been forced to apologise for a discrepancy of his own, after news emerged last week that the former skeleton racer had been expelled and sent home from the Games after being caught up in an incident involving a security guard at the Intercontinental hotel in PyeongChang.

Meanwhile, further unrest has been stirred by the fallout between IOC members Richard Pound - the body’s longest-serving member and WADA’s first president - and John Coates (right). The row began when Pound made highly critical comments about the response to the Russian episode in an interview with London’s Evening Standard, claiming he had “not had a substantive response to any suggestion I’ve made on the Russia issue from Thomas [Bach]”.

“The only people that scare these old farts are athletes saying, ‘If you won’t clean this up, we’re not going to participate in these events,’” he said. “There are dissenting voices from countries like Britain, Canada, the US and France but not enough.”

This drew an angry response from Coates, a former IOC vice president who also serves as president of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). In a letter written to Pound, and subsequently reported by specialist outlet Inside the Games, he stated that Pound did ‘not enjoy the respect normally afforded to the holder of [the position of IOC doyen]’.

Responding  to questions about the exchange at a press briefing in PyeongChang on Wednesday, IOC spokesman Mark Adams said: “I think John is pointing out that it does seem strange that the doyen of the IOC is describing this organisation as an organisation as ‘old farts’.

"In the end, if you don’t like the coffee that’s served at the coffee shop, and you don’t like the décor and you don’t like the prices, then you maybe go to another coffee shop."

Wherever the argument leads, the fact that the IOC, its members and CAS are not working in tandem ought to raise alarm. The episode has done little to build confidence in the prospect of a concerted response to coordinated doping.

Banner day

The IOC dispute comes against the backdrop of further doping controversy at this year’s Games. Last Tuesday, Japanese speed skater Kei Saito became the first athlete to be excluded from PyeongChang for a doping violation, while Slovenian ice hockey player Ziga Jeglic has since also tested positive for a banned substance.

The biggest headline-grabber, though, has been the case of Russian bronze medal-winning curler Alexander Krushelnitsky, who is suspected of taking meldonium, a banned pharmaceutical known to increase blood flow which improves the performance of athletes. Various conspiracy theories have since surfaced - the athlete himself has claimed that he fears he was spiked by a jealous teammate - but with all eyes firmly fixed on the behaviour of the OAR team, the margin for error is minimal.       

Russian curler Alexander Krushelnitsky and his wife have been stripped of their bronze medals after the former tested positive for meldonium

Krushelnitsky’s misdemeanour might have cost him and his mixed doubles partner - who is also his wife - their medals, but it could also be detrimental to Russia’s bid to have its Olympic ban lifted in time for this weekend’s closing ceremony, a decision which is dependent on the country being deemed to have acted within the ‘spirit and letter’ of the IOC conditions.

Since then, however, reports have circulated this week that Russia is optimistic of having its suspension lifted in time for Sunday's proceedings, meaning its athletes are likely to be allowed to march under their own flag.

According to Inside the Games, Russia has electronically transferred a US$15 million fine owed to the IOC as part of its sanctions, while Bach is also understood to have met with ROC vice president Igor Levitin, who is also a close aide of Russian president Vladimir Putin. IOC spokesman Mark Adams assured Tuesday’s daily briefing in PyeongChang that “there is no way that [decision] can overshadow the closing ceremony,” but should any lifting of the ban come to pass, the presence of Russian flags on the floor of the PyeongChang Olympic Stadium is bound to generate global media attention.

And despite not being explicitly acknowledged, there can be no escaping that Russia’s presence in PyeongChang has done little to aid the IOC’s mission to restore public faith in clean and fair competition. After two weeks of fierce scrutiny, Russia may well finally be able to take refuge under its own flag at Sunday’s closing ceremony, but above it, an air of puzzlement will continue to linger, and a cloud will remain over those trying to cleanse sport of the influences that seek to corrupt it.