MOSCOW: Vladimir Putin has staked Russia’s prestige – and his own reputation – on sporting achievements but a possible ban from the Winter Olympics after claims of state-run doping threatens to wipe out any successes.
Observers say it was the Kremlin’s desire for victory that fuelled the cheating that spectacularly backfired, with the country losing its top ranking in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics after being stripped of 11 medals for doping.
More penalties are expected in the coming days as the International Olympic Committee meets on Tuesday to rule on whether to ban Russia from competing in the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February as punishment for cheating at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
“Sport is a huge media and political resource and Sochi was very important for the country’s image,” said political commentator Sergei Medvedev, adding Russia had resorted to mass-scale doping to guarantee victory in the Sochi games.
“It turns out they overplayed their hand and the largest scandal in the history of the Olympic movement ensued,” the professor at the Moscow-based Higher School of Economics told AFP.
“It is a huge blow to Russian sport.”
Russia may not be barred from the world’s most prestigious sporting event altogether but IOC officials are likely to ban Russian emblems including its flag and anthem from the games.
An explosive 2016 report by the World Anti-Doping Agency detailing the “state-dictated” system to hide drug test failures said it was put in place after a dismal showing at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
Moscow has consistently denied running a state-orchestrated doping programme, seeking to pin all the blame on sporting officials.
In September, a Russian court issued an arrest warrant for whistle-blower Grigory Rodchenkov, who has fled to the United States and spoken out about Moscow’s doping cover-up.
Medvedev of the Higher School of Economics said the possible ban against Russia would only reinforce the Kremlin’s rhetoric which maintains the West is out to get Russia, in Ukraine, Syria and now in sport.
“What is happening now is just one more piece of evidence for the Kremlin that Russia is at war with the outside world,” he said.
Putin said this month that doping allegations against Russian athletes had been invented by the United States to influence a March presidential election he is widely expected to contest and win.
Tatyana Stanovaya, a Paris-based analyst for the Centre of Political Technologies in Moscow, said the Kremlin is sure that performance-based substances are used by athletes everywhere but the West singles out Russia to punish it for its increasingly assertive political stance.
“The question is, why some sportsmen get exposed and others don’t,” she told AFP. “Putin believes that it is not about doping but about bias against Russia.”
Ironically, the punishment of Russian athletes may play into the Kremlin’s hands ahead of the March vote and prompt ordinary Russians to rally behind Putin, just like many did after Western sanctions following Moscow’s takeover of Crimea in 2014.
The Kremlin has pumped more than $50 billion into hosting the Sochi games – some say to the detriment of health care, science and education – and is pulling out all the stops to hold the football World Cup in 2018.
Russia’s state television and radio holding company VGTRK has already said it would not broadcast the Winter Olympics in South Korea if Russian athletes are not allowed to compete in it.
But even anti-Kremlin observers admit Olympic officials may be going too far in their desire to punish Russia.
“A poisonous political atmosphere affects the decisions,” said Anton Orekh, an observer with the liberal Echo of Moscow radio.
Yevgeny Slyusarenko, deputy editor of Russian sports website Championat.com, was more blunt.
“There are doubts that Russian sport and Russian athletes have the right to a fair trial today,” he told AFP.
Some are even wondering whether Russia should pull out of the Olympics altogether.
Dmitry Ponomarenko, a columnist for Sovietsky Sport newspaper, said he personally knew many athletes and how hard they worked, adding he was tired of seeing them painted as villains.
“Professional sport in my mind is now closely associated with political games, fraud, mudslinging, lies and other nastiness,” he wrote.
“Why do we need the Olympic Games? Are they uniting anyone these days? Do they promote peace in the world?”