When one third of Russia's Olympic delegation was banned from the Rio Games in the wake of revelations of widespread, state-sponsored doping, President Vladimir Putin condemned the move as a smear campaign against Russia's Olympic heroes. Now the country faces even sterner sanctions from the International Paralympic Committee, which Putin speaks of as cynical and unkind. Propaganda, you snort instinctively? Perhaps—but this time even Putin's critics think he might have a point, as well.
Whereas the International Olympic Committee shyly delegated the decision to ban athletes to individual sports federations, the IPC chose a tougher response to WADA's independent report on evidence of Russia's state-run doping programme, issuing a blanket ban on the country's athletes one month before the Paralympic Games were set to begin. In his announcement, IPC president Sir Philip Craven declared that "(the Russian government's) medals over morals mentality disgusts me." Russia appealed the ban to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, but their case was dismissed on Monday, August 23rd.
Speaking at an awards ceremony for Russian Olympians at the Kremlin the following Thursday, Putin slammed the "cynical" ruling as "outside the bounds of law, morality and humanity." He promised that the country would hold its own competition for banned Paralympic athletes, similar to what Russia did for its track and field athletes who were banned from the Olympic Games. (Although as recently as last week Russia's Minister of Sport suggested that the format might be more exhibition than competition since, as he told TASS, "our parathletes don't have many rivals inside the country.")
Commentators around the world have praised Craven for taking a stand against institutionalized drug cheating. The WADA report estimates 35 cases between 2012 and 2015 where positive doping tests from Russian Paralympic athletes disappeared. But the inconsistency between the IOC and IPC's policies means that Russia's disabled athletes are now being punished more harshly than their able-bodied teammates—a discrepancy that had not gone unnoticed.
"Russians, even westernized Russians, think that sportsmen mustn't take responsibility for the actions of sports officials, and they assess the Paralympics ban as discrimination of the disabled," Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior associate for the Carnegie Moscow Center, told VICE Sports.
Kremlin mouthpieces Sputnik and Russia Today flooded the airwaves and social media last month with footage of Russia's athletes expressing their dismay at the IPC and hoping for a reversal that ultimately would not come.
"Disabled people are trying so hard to go beyond their limitations, to get out of their confines," Ekaterina Potapova, who competes in discus and hammer throw, says sadly in one of the clips. "And then they are being humiliated like this—it is just not fair."
"(The ruling) is a great tragedy for the Russian Paralympic athletes who have been preparing for the last four years to compete in the games," Denise Roza said, who directs the Russian disability-rights NGO Perspektiva.
Civil society activists and Putin rarely see eye to eye (he keeps calling them spies), but for Roza, Russian support for the Paralympics in recent years is a sign of just how far the disability-rights movement there has come.
"Leading up to the Games, the athletes were featured on TV and in public service announcements, where they briefly told their stories...These were some of the best and non-stereotypical stories I had ever seen on Russian TV," Roza told VICE, referring to the 2012 and 2014 Paralympics. "Seeing so many people cheering for all the disabled athletes was an amazing moment."
And a significant one in a country where disability has long been stigmatized, often with brutal consequences. During Soviet times, people with disabilities were hidden from the public, banned from appearing on television, and housed in dire boarding schools or nursing homes. Soldiers coming back from fighting Nazi Germany with missing limbs were sent to labour camps or remote areas in northern Russia.
By the time Moscow hosted the Olympics in 1980, the Paralympic Games had been established; typically both Games were held in the same city, but that year the Netherlands held the Paralympics instead. "There are no invalids in the USSR," a Soviet representative informed a journalist on site.
And really, the journalist may have gotten this impression—for the sake of presenting the "Soviet dream" to foreign spectators, organizers expelled disabled Muscovites from the city before the Games began.
The Soviet Union didn't send a Paralympic delegation until Seoul in 1988, and the Russian Paralympic Committee wasn't founded until 1995, one year before Roza began working on disability rights in the country (she set up Perspektiva in 1997).
Roza says a lot has continued to change since then. Since Putin's second premiership, the Russian state has introduced new legislation and made investments to improve accessibility for disabled persons in cities and schools. In 2012, Russia ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, thus agreeing to translate the convention's ideals into legal reforms. That same year, Russia's Paralympic team finished second in the medal table at the London Games. When the Olympics returned to Russian soil in 2014, with the Winter Games in Sochi, a Paralympic Games were finally held in the country as well.
But strands of the old stigma still prevail. Leading up to the Sochi Games, Human Rights Watch released a 2013 report, based on interviews with disabled Russians as well as NGOs, about the state of disability rights in the country. "For many people with disabilities in Russia taking part in the basic activities of daily life ... can be extremely difficult or even impossible due to a range of different types of barriers they encounter," the report said, pointing to inconsistent or insufficient enforcement of laws designed to protect against discrimination and improve accessibility.
"We are taking baby steps now toward an improvement in attitudes," Yulia Kolesnichenko, from the Moscow-based NGO Downside Up, told Newsweek earlier this year. "Right now, Russia lags behind Western countries by around 40 to 50 years."
But Putin acting as disabled rights defender may be a little hard to stomach for some skeptics, coming one year after his recession-ridden government implemented new rules that cut the disability benefits of nearly 500,000 people.
"The Paralympics belong to Putin's propaganda," Maria Komandnaya, a reporter for the Russian channel TV Rain, told the German magazine Die Zeit in 2014. "All other people with disabilities are still having a bad time. They cannot even leave their apartments"—something Human Rights Watch documented in several cases for its report, including a 26-year-old woman in a wheelchair who was often trapped for several months at a time in a third-floor apartment in Sochi.
Prior to the Sochi Paralympics, Putin was celebrated when he announced his intention to make sport schools facilities to disabled teens in 26 regions of Russia. Now his promise to Russia's 267 banned Paralympic athletes is getting twice the acclaim, as the public's mood shifts from outrage at the "discriminatory" ban on Russian athletes to a deeper sense of indignation.
"Settling scores with disabled people, it is fascism, raising its head in Europe 70 years later," wrote political analyst Alexei Martynov in the newspaper Izvestia.
"It is a great mistake of the IPC to provide this ban," the Carnegie Moscow Center's Kolesnikov said. "Once again, it helps Putin to consolidate the majority of Russians around him. Here in Russia, everyone is yelling that this is violence of the international law and absolutely immoral."
And so now, in the face of the country's para athletes losing so much, even the Kremlin's critics agree that having Russia's own Paralympic event is a good idea. Liberal journalist Anton Orekh celebrated Putin's announcement gloomily in his column for the opposition radio channel, Echo Moscow.
"If you don't want Putin embarrassed by his loud promises, then promote this competition to the sky," he wrote. "Yes, it's propaganda, but people with disabilities in our country are in such a position that they will take joy in anything that isn't an obituary."
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