By Nathan Tipping
A glimpse into the mind of the Kremlin
The Olympic Games are, and always have been, a political event. Those who wish the Olympics to be a politically sterile display of sportsmanship are guilty of, at best, wishful thinking. It should have come as no surprise, then, that when the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) commissioned an investigation into allegations of doping amongst Russian athletes in 2014, it exposed a state-sponsored doping programme implicating individuals as high up as the Minister for Sports. For nearly five years, the state systematically replaced ‘tamper-proof’ urine bottles with clean samples in order to boost its performance in competitions such as the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics and the Sochi 2014 Winter Games. The doping scandal not only demonstrates the importance of sporting events to Russia’s self-image, but also helps to explain the enduring popularity of Putin’s regime.
For a long time, the tensions of the political sphere have bled into the arena of sports. After all, a nation that produces exceptional athletes is clearly a nation well-governed – or so the narrative goes. Increasingly, Russia has attempted to harness the politicised nature of sport in its favour. Some academics have labelled this obsession with hosting and participating in sporting events as ‘glocalisation’ – an alternative way to achieve international legitimacy. Having hosted the 2013 World Student Games and the 2014 Winter Olympics, as well as planning to host the 2018 World Cup, competitive events are clearly an avenue through which the Kremlin seeks to present itself as competent and able. Surely then, for a state that wishes to legitimise itself through sports both internally and externally, this summer’s scandal should have been a kick in the teeth?
The answer: yes and no. For the Kremlin, WADA’s report has been without doubt an inconvenience. Not only has the scandal cast doubts over every sporting success Russia has achieved in the past five years, it has also sparked calls from a number of European and American politicians to boycott the 2018 World Cup. At best, the entire affair has been an embarrassment.
Yet, when pressure begins to mount from abroad, the regime turns inwards. WADA’s accusations, the active exclusion of an otherwise exceptional athletics team, and calls to boycott future Russian events all provide fuel for the Kremlin’s propaganda machine. Although the exposure of the doping scheme has drawn unwelcome international attention, ultimately Putin’s most important audience is Russian. Utilising the narrative of Russia as the victim of a Western-led international plot has long been a sure-fire way of drumming up domestic support and deflecting criticism.
Dmitry Shlyakhtin, President of the Russian Sports Federation, has been vocal in voicing his belief that other countries face just as many domestic issues, ‘but for some reason they’re searching for problems in Russia all the time’. In playing the innocent but imperfect victim, many citizens will buy into the idea that Russia really does suffer from international bullying. In fact, the more blame that Putin finds placed upon him, the more effective his response becomes. As Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev notes, ‘When Putin lies brazenly he wants the West to point out that he lies, so he can point back and say “but you lie too”’. This explains, then, why within Russia the details of the scandal are becoming increasingly blurred. Less and less is the affair understood as one of the Ministry of Sport versus WADA, but rather one of Russia versus ‘The Rest’.
The Kremlin’s ability to bounce back following waves of international condemnation has been crucial in keeping the regime afloat. Putin maintains one of the highest approval ratings of any leader in the world – peaking at 89 percent in 2015 after renewed criticism from the EU over Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Part of this may stem from the methods used by the West to keep Russia ‘in line’. Putin’s regime is infamously slippery when it comes to facing external criticism. In the case of the doping scandal, Putin has not shied away from branding blanket bans on Paralympic athletes ‘cynical and immoral’, framing the issue as one of Western-dominated institutions crushing the aspirations of Russian citizens. By ‘picking on the little guy’ – whether athletes or ordinary citizens – Western states offer themselves up as easy scapegoats when the Kremlin’s international plans go awry. Although the doping project may have failed to achieve its international goals, the subsequent fallout has provided easy propaganda material for Putin’s regime.
State-sponsored doping programmes are not a new phenomenon. During the Cold War a number of East German athletes were drugged, often without their knowledge. The tendency of states to pin their own prestige on the performance of their national teams in sporting events readily explains why the Russian Ministry of Sport was willing to risk conducting the doping project in the first place. But the scandal tells us far more about the Kremlin than this. It demonstrates, once again, the regime’s ability to spin alternative narratives, painting Russia and its citizens as the victims of Western aggression.