The country’s extensive, state-backed doping program has resulted in penalties without precedent. The Russian Federation will not participate in the Olympics, though individual athletes may.
MOSCOW — Russia, which has long burnished athletic prowess as a symbol of its great power status, faced its largest international sporting crisis since the Soviet era on Tuesday when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned the country from competing in the 2018 Winter Games.
The ban from the games in South Korea came after the IOC’s lead investigator concluded members of the Russian government concocted a doping scheme at the 2014 Sochi Games that “caused unprecedented damage to Olympism and to sports.”
In a country that is a winter-sports powerhouse, one covered by snow much of the year, the ban pitted the desire of ordinary Russians to cheer on their champion skaters, biathletes and hockey players against calls to boycott the games to show that an Olympics without Russia is no Olympics at all.
Some senior Russian politicians and sporting officials demanded that Russia avoid the Winter Games entirely, while others thought individual competitors should make the decision. The ban left open the door for athletes to compete as individuals, under the Olympic flag.
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In Switzerland, Alexander Zhukov, the president of the Russian Olympic Committee, apologized “for violations of anti-doping rules that were committed in our country,” though Russian officials have steadfastly said the problem was not systemic or sanctioned by the government. Zhukov was himself suspended Tuesday.
President Vladimir Putin, the most important voice in the decision, was not heard from immediately. He had previously suggested that competing under anything other than the Russian flag would be “humiliating.”
Russia is expected to appeal.
Not welcome in Pyeongchang next year will be any sign of the Russian Olympic Committee or any member of its sports ministry, which was responsible for what investigators concluded was a top-to-bottom scheme of “manipulation and cheating” to ensure Russians could dope at the Olympics on their home turf and not get caught.
The IOC punishment did leave room for many Russians to compete under the name “Olympic Athlete from Russia,” or OAR. They would have to pass drug tests to prove they were clean and also did not benefit from the Sochi scheme.
There was also a political facet to it all, especially with Putin’s re-election campaign unrolling next February as the games take place.
Some political analysts predicted it would have no effect on Putin’s popularity — if anything it might increase his standing — as the president built his popularity on the idea that he “brought Russia off its knees,” ending the perceived humiliations the West heaped on the ashes of the Soviet Union.
Other analysts wondered whether the mounting scandals involving Russia might not begin to reverberate. There is the threat of new sanctions from the United States over election hacking, for example, as well as the investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Moscow and a court case in the Netherlands over the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines jetliner over Ukraine in 2014.
“There are too many fishy stories in the Kremlin’s relations with Europe and the U.S.,” said Aleksandr Morozov, an analyst and frequent Kremlin critic, suggesting that the public would begin to trust the Kremlin less and Russia’s international reputation would further erode.
State outlets like RT, the international television voice of the Russian government, went into overdrive attacking the inquiry as an attempt to demean Russia, while ignoring questions about whether something was rotten in Russian sports. One of the main state broadcasters announced immediately that it would not show the games.
Aleksandr Zubkov, who leads the federation of Russian bobsledders, was banned for life by the IOC. He said that it would be up to individual athletes to decide whether to participate, as did Aleksei Kravtsov, the head of the skating union, according to the Interfax news agency.
Irina Avvakumova, a ski jumper, said she was inclined not to go but would consult her coaches.
“I don’t know how other athletes will react, but I was not training for many years to go and not participate for my own country,” she was quoted as saying by the Tass news agency.
Alexander Tikhonov, a former champion Soviet biathlete and previous head of the Russian association, encouraged athletes to go. “We have to prove to everyone that we’re the best,” he was quoted as saying by Championat.com, a sports website. “Competing without the anthem and the flag is not a treachery. We have to go and to give hell to everyone: to the Americans, to the whole world.”
On social media, some critics of participating in the games said athletes who went should lose their citizenship. Critics of the Olympic ban started a #NoRussiaNoGames account on Instagram.
Asked in October about possible action by the Olympic committee, Putin suggested it was a U.S. plot and hinted at a boycott if there was either an outright ban on Russia or an order to compete under a neutral flag. “Either way, it is humiliating for our country,” he said.
Investigators did not find any direct link to Putin in the doping scandal, said Samuel Schmid, the former president of Switzerland, who led the investigation.
Nineteen Russian athletes competed as neutrals in the World Championships in London last summer, but the Olympics are different.
They still resonate internationally as both a sporting and a political event, although the accumulation of scandals has perhaps diminished the global impact of historic matches like the 1972 Soviet victory over the previously undefeated U.S. men’s basketball team.
A Russian film to be released this month celebrates that victory in a heavily nationalistic manner. “The Americans have to be defeated by someone at some point,” the coach says. “I thought that this should be us.”
Outside Russia, the current doping scandal seems centered on trying to clean up international sports. Russia, professing its innocence, has been trying to paint the fight as an extension of the Cold War tensions of old, when the United States led a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow over its invasion of Afghanistan.
Almost 70 countries boycotted the games that summer. Russia retaliated by boycotting the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, taking some 14 of its Communist bloc allies with it.
The Soviet Union initially spurned the Olympics, then turned it into an arena to prove Communist achievements. Systemic doping proved part of the formula for some.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was revealed that East Germany in particular ran a large state-sponsored doping program involving 10,000 athletes between 1968 and 1988.
There were hints along the way. The East German women swimmers did not win a single gold medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics, but claimed 11 of 13 gold medals in Montreal four years later. When U.S. swimmers remarked that the East German women were the same size as the men, they were accused of being sore losers.
Like the Soviet Union, Putin invested in the Olympics as a means to burnish Russia’s international reputation and his own political fortunes.
His public-approval rating had been in steady decline before the 2014 Winter Olympics held at Sochi, Russia.
Russian athletes excelled in those games, winning 33 metals, 13 of them gold. A month later he annexed Crimea. His domestic approval ratings soared to 86 percent and have barely retreated since.
The IOC has now retroactively banned 25 Russians who competed in Sochi for doping offenses, stripping them of 11 medals.
Investigations are ongoing.
Russia continues to deny many of the allegations raised by Grigory Rodchenkov, the whistleblower who fled to the United States in late 2015, blaming him for any doping.
Vitaly Mutko, the former sports minister whom the Olympic Committee banned for life on Tuesday, also blames Rodchenkov.
Before the announcement, Mutko, whom Putin promoted to deputy prime minister after the scandal erupted, said that there was more to athletic life than the Olympics.
“It is not the end of the world really!” he was quoted as telling Novaya Gazeta, a Russian newspaper. “Everyone must understand the world of sports is not just the Olympic Games.”