Mark Galeotti Mark Galeotti

Why Russia’s Olympic punishment backfired

(Photo: Getty)

The Tokyo Olympics are over and fifth place in the medals table went to the ‘ROC’, the Russian Olympic Committee. Rather than being punished for its state-run doping programme, Russia has turned it into a perverse triumph, illustrating the weakness of sanctions as a way of trying to shape international behaviour.

Of course, Moscow denied systematic cheating, but after the World Anti-Doping agency imposed a four-year ban in 2019, reduced to two years by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in 2020, they were forced to accept that if Russian athletes were going to compete, they could not do so under their own flag.

They hardly went deep undercover, though. At the 2018 PyeongChang winter Olympics, they wore plain grey uniforms and took the podium to the Olympic anthem. By contrast, while the 335 Russians in Tokyo couldn’t compete under the Russian flag, their symbol was the Olympic logo in its white, blue and red colours, and their white uniforms were emblazoned in blue and red. Instead of the Russian national anthem, they celebrated victories to Piano Concerto No. 1 by Tchaikovsky.

Russia turned the punishment into a perverse triumph, illustrating the weakness of sanctions

And that anthem was often heard: Russia came fifth in the medals table and third in the total number of medals won. While the athletes were formally part of the ‘ROC’ team, in practice everyone called them the Russians.

This hardly counted as a particular blow to Moscow. Indeed, if anything it generated a certain belligerent defiance. The foreign ministry issued a video in which sharp-tongued spokesperson Maria Zakharova was shown boxing a mannequin marked ‘press’ before answering staged questions about the Russian presence in Tokyo in which she said that ‘the status does not matter. The most important thing is the pride our sportsmen have, and the world knows this.’

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