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This Week in Info War

Moscow responds to Olympic ban

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On 5 December, the International Olympic Committee announced that it would bar the Russian Federation from the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. The decision bans Russia’s flag and anthem, but lets individual athletes compete under the special designation “Olympic Athlete from Russia.” Several Russian sports officials were also punished.

The IOC decision is a historic act of punishment for widespread state-sponsored cheating. It delivered a blow to a nation that prides itself on its sporting prowess and was ecstatic over its victory in the 2014 Winter Olympics medal count. The enforcement regime, moreover, iscleverly designed: it strikes a balance between hurting the regime and punishing Russian athletes themselves. While it dismisses assurances from Russian officials and sports institutions that they ran clean sports programs, it still allows individual competitors to participate, if not under the Russian flag.

Many Russians expressed outrage at the IOC announcement.

  • Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said the state would never acknowledge the accusation of state-sponsored doping that prevents Russia’s team from competing at the games, because it considers the accusations false.
  • The Russian Foreign Ministry also took a hard line. Maria Zakharova, the ministry’s spokeswoman, said the IOC decision is a “massive offense…linked to the fact that a head-on attempt to isolate Russia, which has been proclaimed as an anti-Russia campaign, fell apart, it failed.”
  • Far-right author Nikolai Starikov posted memes on social media showing Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms, writing “just like the IOC asked for.” It was a nod toward the ambiguously uniformed Russian soldiers who helped conquer Crimea in 2014, as Russia wrapped up its own Winter Olympics in Sochi.
The IOC decision also was a prominent theme in Russian media. RT produced several stories on the issue, ranging from reporting Kremlin responses to speculation that the decision marked the launch of a possible Western disinformation campaign. RT America also broadcast a 30-minute news segment likening the IOC ban to a cultural war against Russia. Sputnik, meanwhile, did not report on the IOC ban with the same frenzy as did RT. However, it published an article promoting the narrative that Putin and his government were not involved in the doping scandal. 

Medvedev’s remarks aside, some Russian officials reacted in a more measured way. “We can be indignant with the West as much as we want, and, might I add, justly,” wrote Konstantin Kosachyov, a member of the Federation Council. “But I am sure that our sports officials should be held personally liable for failing to notice the beginning of this campaign and being clearly unable to deal with its finish.”

During a visit to the Gorky car plant on 6 December, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Russia will not boycott the Olympics, as urged by some officials and athletes. “Without a doubt, we will not announce any obstacles. We won’t stop our Olympians from taking part, if someone wants to take part in a personal capacity,” Putin was cited as saying by the Interfax news agency. Amid criticism that Russia’s leadership has failed to acknowledge any responsibility in the doping scandal, Putin appeared to make a half-apology before hinting that the sanctions are politically motivated. “First, it must be said outright, that we are in part to blame for this ourselves because we provided a reason for this,” he said. “And second, I believe that this reason was used in not an entirely honest way, to put it mildly. Most of the accusations are based on facts that are not proven at all and are to a significant degree unfounded.”

A few hours after the IOC press conference, Putin announced he was running for president again, a decision that surprised no one, but came much earlier than most people expected. The timing was most likely intended as a distraction from the fact that Putin himself bore some of the blame for the ban. “This is an existential issue, not exactly a stab in the back so much as a stab in the heart,” wrote commentator Oleg Kashin. “Either this is the West collectively putting Russia in its place in the same line of thinking as the sanctions, or a matter of incompetence among the authorities in Russia responsible for sports, bringing on catastrophe. These are not mutually exclusive versions explaining what happened, so sooner or later they will merge. Both the IOC and Vladimir Putin are at risk of not being forgiven for Russian humiliation in the Winter Olympics. This is a blow that will have an impact for a long time to come.”