Tuesday, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced a shocking decision to ban Russia from the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, due to Russia’s “systematic manipulation of the anti-doping rules.” The public reaction to this decision – by government officials and public commentators, and on my Twitter feed — was very polarized.
Most around the world rejoiced. “Russia” got what it deserved, so many explained. But many Russian voices expressed the opposite view, calling the decision a politicized one. The head of Russia’s curling federation, Dmitry Svishchev, asserted: “I am profoundly convinced that it was made under pressure. Someone needed Russia not to participate in the Games.”
I have a third view. The IOC decision was tragic but necessary. “Russia,” however, should neither be blamed nor defended. Instead, the Russian government must be assigned full responsibility for this tragedy, both by foreign governments and athletes but also by Russian society. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s friend, Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko, oversaw this industrial cheating scheme. That’s why the IOC banned Mutko from all future Olympic competitions. Another close Putin confidant and president of Russia’s Olympic Committee, Alexander Zhukov, was suspended as an IOC member. Make no mistake: Mutko and Zhukov were not some rogue actors, acting independently from Putin or the Russian government. They were his lieutenants. In Putin’s government today, there are no independent actors. Obviously, the IOC had no interest in banning one of the powerhouses in winter sports from the Games. Putin compelled them to make this decision.
In assigning blame to the Kremlin, the international community as well as Russian society also should recognize that the biggest victims of the Russian government’s decisions are the clean Russian athletes who played by the Olympic rules. Putin has said Russia would not prevent its athletes from competing as neutrals, but that means they will be denied the proud moment of watching the Russian flag ascend during the medals ceremony — what should be the highlight of their athletic careers. Gold medal winners will not get to hear the Russian national anthem, all because of Putin’s decision to cheat.
The other losers are fans around the world, including me, who wanted to see these Russian athletes compete in PyeongChang not as “Olympic athletes from Russia” but as fierce, proud, and patriotic members of the Russian national team. I attended the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014. There was nothing more exciting than seeing Russia’s best athletes compete head-to-head with the United States’ best athletes. For me, the most thrilling moment of that Olympics was the hockey match between the United States and Russia (which we won!). Such a matchup has no chance of happening again in PyeongChang. Putin denied us all — Russians, Americans and other fans around the world — that opportunity.
International and Russian fans who wanted to see the Russians compete in the Winter Games next year must blame Putin for this tragedy, not all of Russia and most certainly not all Russian athletes. And Russian citizens must stop blaming foreigners for this sad outcome as well and start beginning to hold their own government accountable. It’s time for Russians to start pressing Putin and his government to make different decisions. Russian athletes, and fans around the world of the Winter Games, deserve better.