Russian President Vladimir Putin spent over $50 billion staging the most expensive Olympics of all time in 2014 in an attempt to showcase Russia’s return to global prominence under his leadership.
Four years later, Russia’s bizarre, unofficial presence at the Pyeongchang Winter Games, thanks to an unprecedented Olympic ban, reveals a different political reality. Instead of reclaiming its stature as a global leader, the country finds itself spurned by the West, dogged by accusations of hacking and election meddling, and the perennial target of sanctions.
Russia’s outcast-status was on full display during the opening ceremony Friday in Pyeongchang, South Korea, when the 169 members of the Russian delegation were forced to march in drab grey instead of their national colors.
The symbolic switch from Olympic host to pariah-of-the-sports-world is a humiliating turnaround for a country that has long seen Olympic glory as a symbol of national power, experts on Russia and international athletics said.
“Sochi was supposed to be the crowning glory of Russia’s return to the international system as a major player,” said Joshua Tucker, co-director of the Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia at New York University, referring to the little seaside resort where Russia held the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Then, just as the games ended, Russian troops stormed into neighboring Ukraine and annexed the province of Crimea, kicking off sanctions and a rapidly deteriorating relationship with the West.
“Crimea just turned the whole thing on its head,” Tucker said. “That was the inflection point.”
Speaking to Russian media hours before the opening ceremony, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov touched on this dynamic, describing recent doping accusations against his country as just the latest chapter in a vast anti-Russia conspiracy.
"The set of tools being used [against Russia] is broad and includes sanctions, the deployment of the global missile shield near our western and eastern borders, media wars, ungrounded accusations of Russia's cyber-attacks against nearly everywhere in the West, and, of course, attempts to discredit our Olympic athletes without proving facts," Lavrov said.
In a lot of ways, Russia’s participation in this year’s Olympic Games are a microcosm of Russia’s controversial role in global affairs, experts on Russian politics and international athletics said. Whether it’s hacking accusations, a historic if confusing ban, or allegations of rampant intelligence operations, Russia is on the outs.
A national disgrace
Russia’s outsider status seemed to be cemented in December, when the International Olympic Committee announced it was kicking Putin’s squad out of the 2018 Winter Games as punishment for what investigators concluded was a massive government-led doping program at the 2014 Olympics.
The plot even involved the direct participation of Russia’s intelligence service, the FSB, according to the former head of Russia’s national anti-doping lab, Grigory Rodchenkov, who blew the lid off the scheme before disappearing into the U.S. Federal Witness Protection Program, fearing for his life.
Officials eventually ruled that athletes who weren’t personally tainted by the doping scandal could participate. But the more than 160 athletes cleared to compete, will do so under a neutral flag — not as Russian athletes, but as “Olympic athletes from Russia.”
To the chagrin of a nation that has long staked its national pride on Olympic gold, the Russian anthem won’t play when those athletes win. Russian government officials aren’t allowed to attend, and the athletes themselves will be wearing generic uniforms. And adding insult to injury, dozens of Russian athletes were forced to wait in desperation for a last-minute decision on whether they'd be allowed to join in at all.
As in U.S. 2016 election, there are reports Russia hacked into organizations tied to the Olympics.
Cyber experts say at least one group of hackers tied to Russia, known as Fancy Bear, has targeted international sporting organizations. According to cyber security firm Trend Micro, the same hacking outfit that penetrated the Democratic National Committee’s computer systems also hacked into the European Ice Hockey Federation, the International Ski Federation, the International Biathlon Union, the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation and the International Luge Federation.
Hackers using the Fancy Bear moniker published stolen emails from the International Olympic Committee and World Anti-Doping Agency last month — apparently in retaliation for Russia’s Olympic ban.
Moscow officials, of course, deny all wrongdoing, and cast Russia as the victim in the Olympic fiasco, rather than the culprit.
‘Squandered good will’
Russia, like other countries, has long sought to use the Olympics to showcase national power, experts said. That’s a big reason why Russia pinned so much of its prestige on the Olympics in 2014, and why its embarrassment in 2018 is so painful.
“During the Cold War, international sporting events were referred to as ‘war without weapons,’” said Peter Donnelly, director of the Center for Sport Policy Studies at the University of Toronto. “It’s a symbolic battleground. It’s about national status, and showing superiority on the world stage.”
Putin, a ex-KGB lieutenant colonel and a lifelong sports enthusiast, threw his country’s entire weight behind hosting the Winter Games in 2014 — even flying personally to Guatemala to deliver a speech in both English and French to the International Olympic Committee.
The Games were meant to be Russia’s return to its rightful place on the world stage following the difficult years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But his decision to invade neighboring Ukraine and annex Crimea undid Sochi’s Olympic glory, almost overnight, experts said.
“Lo and behold, they bring it off — and then within months, they squander all that good will,” said Bob Edelman, an expert on Russian history and sports at the University of California, San Diego, and author of Serious Fun: a History of Spectator Sports in the USSR.
This month’s Winter Games offer another sort of metaphor: The IOC’s confused punishment for Russia’s doping scandal by banning the country while allowing its athletes to compete reflects the West’s inability to forge a coherent response to Russia’s alleged cyber warfare and election meddling, said Tucker.
“What do you do with a big, strong, nuclear-armed power when you’re not happy with what they’re doing, but they are too large to be ignored?” he asked. “You can’t just shut down relations with Russia. There are serious consequences to doing that.”
Cover image: Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during a meeting with Russian athletes and team members, who will take part in the upcoming 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games, at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia January 31, 2018. REUTERS/Grigory Dukor