This Week in Info War

Editor’s Note: 31 July 2016

Aleksandr Zhukov, head of the Russian Olympic Committee, said on 27 July that more than 250 of the country’s 387 Olympic athletes have been cleared to participate in this month’s 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro—despite a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) call to ban all Russian athletes.

WADA’s independently commissioned report found evidence of a Russian state-sponsored “four-year doping program” across the “vast majority of sports.” The International Olympic Committee (IOC) last month ignored the report’s recommendations and declined to impose a blanket ban on Russian athletes at the Rio games. Rather, it let individual sports federations to recommend who should be allowed to attend, with the final decision to be made by a three-person panel. Even so, at last count at least 115 athletes have been barred from participating due to failed dope tests—including all but one member of Russia’s track and field team, almost 70 swimmers and divers, 22 of 28 rowers and all eight weightlifters.  

Observers have widely criticized the IOC’s reluctance to fully implement the WADA’s recommendations. “If you are strong, rich, or you know where the bodies are buried,” wrote James Nixey of London’s Chatham House, “you may well be able to avoid ostracism – regardless of the weight of evidence against you.”  Russia is all of these. Nixey stressed the seriousness of the matter for the Olympic movement.  “Russia has not been found guilty of simply harboring drug cheats. It has been shown to have been engineering them on an unprecedented scale.” 

Russian officials allege that the doping-related suspensions amounted to “discrimination” against Russia’s clean athletes. They proclaimed that the IOC’s refusal to ban all Russian athletes was proof the doping scandal was a matter of a few bad apples, and that the investigation was a US-led witch hunt “to make sport an instrument for geopolitical pressure.”

While not apologizing, Putin promised to punish the officials named in the report in order to salvage his country’s prospects. Both the major Russian television news channels and RT—the Kremlin-funded, English-language TV news channel—minimized the consequences of such a ban,  concentrating instead on questions related to the alleged Western, anti-Russia propaganda war.

The Kremlin has offered several fanciful explanations for why this “geopolitical pressure” has focused on Russia. As one of the CEPA briefs discusses this week, on 21 July one propaganda website blamed the ban on the West’s “inferiority complex.” After losing prestige because of Russia’s intervention in Syria, the site argues, watching Russia win most of the gold medals would be doubly infuriating. The most frequently used Russian defense, however, has been that everyone else does it too. This is probably correct. But as Nixey reminds us, there is no moral equivalence between the Russian government’s actions and those of other countries, as the Kremlin’s propaganda outlets claim. No country, save Russia, has been shown to have willfully masterminded a system to cheat in international sports tournaments.  

Since the Soviet era, Russians have turned the outwitting of rules that hampered their lives into something of an art form, so the public is rarely shocked when it learns that their government does the same. Russians also have been conditioned  to view sports as an extension of global competition. It is thus not surprising that the official response to the doping allegation has resembled that in other battlefields of the information war. “Sports is an imitation of war,” said one Kremlin apologist. “It is peaceful, without arms, but there is a fierce rivalry in it. Sports demonstrate that Russia is a great power.”