A man walks past the logo of the Russian Olympic Committee at its headquarters in Moscow, Dec. 6. (Ilnitsk/Epa-Efe/Rex/Shutterstock)

Prominent Russians expressed anger, despair and resentment on Wednesday after the International Olympic Committee decided to ban the Russian Federation from the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.

The ban is a historic act of punishment for widespread doping among Russian athletes that Olympic officials believe was supported by the government.

It delivered a body blow to a nation that prides itself on its sporting prowess and was ecstatic over its victory in the 2014 Winter Olympics medal count. Just four years later, the Russian Federation’s count will be zero, and the country is considering a boycott. 

Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader who helped end the Cold War, called the IOC decision “outrageous.” The decision bans Russia’s flag and anthem but allows individual athletes to compete under a special designation, as Olympic Athlete from Russia (OAR).

“It’s just bad, and that’s it,” Gorbachev told the state sport news agency, R-Sport. “It’s sports, damn it.”

Russia’s flag and anthem will be absent from February’s PyeongChang Games in South Korea as consequence for widespread doping. (Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

Russian lawmakers, often the vanguard of public outrage, demanded punishments. Some turned on their own. One filed suit against former minister of sport Vitaly Mutko for “demeaning the honor of the country.” (Mutko was also slapped with a lifetime Olympic ban on Tuesday.) 

Several prominent journalists and commentators, notably far-right author Nikolai Starikov, posted memes on social media showing Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms, writing, “just as IOC asked for.” It was a nod toward the unmarked Russian soldiers who helped seize Crimea in 2014, as Russia wrapped up its own Winter Olympic Games.

Russia claims political grievances with the West, stretching from Ukraine to Syria, and back to the 1998-99 war in Kosovo. But sports, and the politics surrounding them, still have a special ability to stir up emotions here, both in the Kremlin and in homes across the country.

When Russian officials bring up complaints about the West, they regularly list the mocking coverage of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, with articles exposing hastily constructed bathrooms with two toilets, rather than extolling the grandeur of a mountain ski town and seaside sporting mecca built from scratch at a cost of $50 billion.

For a time, it appeared that Russian President Vladi­mir Putin would stake part of his legacy on great sporting events. He personally addressed the International Olympic Committee in English in 2008 in Guatemala to secure Russia’s bid for the games to take place at the Black Sea resort town of Sochi. Last week at the Kremlin, he opened the draw ceremony for the 2018 World Cup, also set to be held in Russia, and traded trilingual party banter with FIFA President Gianni Infantino and soccer legend Diego Maradona. 

Now, with Russia on the verge of a major breach with the West over an alleged state-sponsored doping program, the Kremlin is treading carefully.

“Our main goal is to defend the interests of our athletes, Russian athletes,” Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s personal spokesman, said. Toward Wednesday evening, he said the country would not entertain a boycott against the Olympics for Russian athletes who wanted to participate independently but said the findings against Russia were politically motivated.

Just a few weeks ago, the honorary head of Russia’s Olympic Committee, Leonid Tyagachev, said Grigory Rodchenkov, the Russian doctor and whistleblower who exposed the doping program, should be “shot like Stalin would have done.” Now, there are signs that officials are becoming more careful in their rhetoric.

“We can be indignant with the West as much as we want, and, might I add, justly,” wrote Konstantin Kosachev, a vocal member of Russia’s upper house of parliament, 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.”

The conflict has polarized society, one sports editor said. 

“There is no one left in the middle,” Dmitry Navosha, head of Sports.ru, a popular Russian sports website, said in a telephone interview. Personally, he said, he believes the government could have taken measures to avoid the full ban announced Tuesday. But many others see a conspiracy against Russia. 

“I think that society is deeply polarized,” Navosha said. “Some people are going to use the words they use on state television; others are going to ask serious questions of the government about why this happened.”