Officially banned from participating in the Olympics after a doping scandal, Russia is not afraid to promote its athletes – who compete under the banner of the “Russian Olympic Committee” – and to take the opportunity to criticize what it considers a very unfair ban.
It looks like Russia, it swims like Russia… but officially it’s not Russia. At the Tokyo Games, the country’s 335-strong delegation is competing as the “Russian Olympic Committee” (ROC) rather than under the national flag, following a December 2020 ruling by the highest sports judge over state-run doping. That hasn’t stopped it from holding its own in the medal tally, with nine golds on Friday morning, behind China, Japan and the United States. Nor has it stopped Russian leaders from rallying around the team and using the hashtag #WeWillROCYou – a reference to the Queen song.
Since 2015, Russia has been mired in a massive doping scandal with far-reaching consequences. In December 2019, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) imposed a four-year ban on the Russian team for tampering with doping tests. A year later, the Court of Arbitration for Sport halved the ban — a highly controversial decision — meaning Russia won’t be able to compete under its own name, anthem and flag until January 2023.
National colors and Tchaikovsky
The suspension has put Russia in an awkward position, but leaders have looked for ways to get around the problem. For the Tokyo Games, they reached a compromise with the International Olympic Committee (IOC): the athletes could compete under the flag of the ROC, whose symbol is an Olympic flame with white, blue and red stripes, matching the Russian flag. .
The uniforms of the ROC also bear the three colors, while a piece by the Russian composer Tchaikovsky takes the place of the national anthem.
However, the synchronized swimming team was not allowed to wear a bear on its swimsuits, because the IOC ruled that the symbol was too closely associated with Russia.
Many Western commentators found the restrictions too lax. American rower Megan Kalmoe said she left with a “nasty feeling” after seeing Russians Vasilisa Stepanova and Elena Oriabinskaia take silver in the women’s pair on Thursday.
Seeing a crew that shouldn’t even walk out of here with a silver is a bad feeling. Overall really disappointing and I sympathize with the other athletes in the A final. Great love for all my friends and enemies who have given everything.
— Megan Kalmoe (@megankalmoe) July 29, 2021
ROC head Stanislav Pozdnyakov, meanwhile, says the sanctions are “unfair” and “excessive”. Pozdnyakov, a former fencer and four-time Olympic champion, argues that current Russian athletes are being punished for accusations that predate their joining the team.
This has essentially been Russia’s stance since WADA first revealed the extent of state-sponsored doping half a decade ago. Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2019 denounced the body’s ruling as “politically motivated” and contrary to the Olympic charter. Former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said the country’s suspension was a reflection of “chronic anti-Russian hysteria”.
“These taunts from WADA, these constant bans and restrictions will only feed us,” Tina Kandelaki, a celebrity TV host, wrote in an Instagram post dated July 18. Kandelaki, the lead producer of Match TV – Russia’s largest sports channel and a subsidiary of state energy company Gazprom – encouraged her 2.7 million followers to use the hashtag #WeWillROCYou on social media.
It wasn’t long before the authorities got involved. State media, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and a variety of artists and influencers affiliated with the Kremlin all promoted the hashtag. It also made its way to the streets of Moscow, where a huge mural depicts a Russian judoka knocking down an opponent with the acronym WADA on his kimono.
Lukas Aubin, a geopolitics scholar and the author of a recent book on sports and power in Putin’s Russia, says the Kremlin’s goals in this campaign are fourfold: “Encouraging the Russian athletes, patriotic sentiments around the Russian Olympic team crystallize, boost morale in a humiliating context and politicize the event and at the same time depoliticise”, in a very Russian paradox.
Indeed, Putin has repeatedly said that sporting events are not the place to broadcast political messages, even though Russia has consistently used them to wield soft power.
Stick to the script
The topics of discussion handed out to Russian athletes prior to the Games are a good example of this. When asked by the press about the Black Lives Matter movement, Russians were told that supporting the movement is a personal choice, but that “the Olympics should not become a platform for actions and gestures”.
When asked about doping, the athletes are encouraged not to comment – a more diplomatic response than the answer given by Maria Zakharova, spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in an Instagram post dated July 25. The video shows her hitting a dummy labeled “Press” before answering reporters’ questions about the Olympics. It’s simply subtitled: #wewillrocyou.
This article has been adapted from the original in French.