Sports Ruling on Russian Athletes Reflects International Political Struggle
Just like during the Cold War, international sports have become a realm of competition influenced by the Russian-Western divide.
The Court of Arbitration for Sports upheld a ban against Russia over doping allegations, the latest in a prolonged—and politically charged—stand-off between Moscow and international sports institutions.
Earlier this week, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) issued a ruling blocking Russia from using its flag and anthem at the next two Olympics and at any major international sport events for the next two years. Russian athletes not implicated in credible doping allegations can still compete as neutrals, provided that the name “Russia” is no more prominently displayed on their uniforms than “Neutral Athlete” or a similar term—the Russian hockey jerseys from the 2018 Olympics are an example of an acceptable uniform under this these guidelines.
The restrictions upheld by the CAS did not nearly go far enough according to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the Montreal-based, International Olympic Committee (IOC)-associated organization that previously imposed a four-year ban on a formal Russian presence at Olympic games. Stating that they “clearly proved” their case “in the face of continual resistance and denial from Russia,” WADA nonetheless expressed frustration that the court did not uphold the full term of Russia’s ban. “We are, however, disappointed that the CAS Panel did not endorse each and every one of our recommended consequences for the four-year period we requested. We believe they were proportionate and reasonable, but ultimately WADA is not the judge but the prosecutor and we must respect the decision of the Panel,” read a WADA press statement in response to the ruling.
The ruling is the latest salvo in a years-long legal battle between Russia and the IOC—one that, since its inception, has been unable to escape the long shadow cast by geopolitics.
Scattered allegations that Russia’s Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) was overlooking widespread instances of doping first surfaced in the early 2010s. Neither WADA nor the IOC initiated any official proceedings in response to these reports, despite being made aware of them by 2013. It was only toward the end of 2014, following Euromaidan and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea, that allegations of Russian doping began to be widely circulated in Western political discourse.
Shortly following a major German documentary into doping, WADA opened an investigation that alleged widespread doping by Russian athletes and systematic efforts by Russian institutions to cover it up. Russia was subsequently barred from athletics, but still allowed to compete in other sports categories. In late 2017, the IOC banned Russia from competing altogether. The ban was briefly lifted in 2018, but reinstated in 2019 after WADA claimed to find more evidence of RUSADA’s alleged malfeasance. Russia appealed WADA’s decision to the CAS, resulting in the Swiss-based court’s December 2020 decision to partially uphold the ban. The U.S. Justice Department recently accused Russian intelligence operators of “hacking” the 2018 Olympics as an act of retaliation. In addition, the United Kingdom, likewise, has charged Russia with plotting cyber-attacks on the upcoming 2020 Olympics.
The Kremlin has consistently rejected the WADA report’s findings, as well as all subsequent accusations levied by the IOC and Western governments. “Let’s put it this way, these allegations appear entirely unfounded, they are not based on any credible information, they are not backed up by any argumentation,” said Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov. Moscow further maintained that Russian athletes were being punished by the West over parallel political developments. “There are those who want to put Russia in the position of the defendant and the accused,” said Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov. “The accused, everywhere and always, no matter which category of international life you take. Conflicts, economics, energy, gas pipelines, arms trade, everywhere Russia violates something or does something that is not beneficial to certain western countries. The more these types of allegations are levied, the more convinced they become of their anti-Russian reasoning.”
Far from a magnanimous gesture, the waiver allowing Russian athletes to compete under neutral colors is widely perceived, at best, as a national insult; “If I was an athlete, if that’s how they treat our state… if you can’t display your national flag, then I would willingly refuse to participate in any such competition,” said the Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov. At worst, the waiver is seen by some as a ploy to hobble Russia’s sports industry over the long term.
The Kremlin does not deny that individual athletes or certain Russian officials may have been implicated in improper behavior, but insists that there was no state-sanctioned or systemic doping effort. Russian objections center on the perception that the IOC harbors a politically-motivated double standard. Namely, Russian commentators argue that Russian athletes and institutions are being unfairly singled out for what is an industry-wide problem—that non-Russian athletes are not as severely punished for similar behavior, and that these athletes are given wide leeway to circumvent doping rules through loopholes including the use of medicine permits. The timing of this avalanche of allegations, which closely coincides with the post-2014 crisis in relations between Russia and the West, does little to assuage Russian inferences of ulterior political motives on the part of the IOC.
As a result of the recent ruling, Russian athletes will not be able to formally represent Russia in the upcoming Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 Olympic games. Beyond that, the fate of Russia’s future Olympic presence remains uncertain; it is, however, increasingly clear that international sports have become yet another proxy in the ongoing political confrontation between the Kremlin and the West.
Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest.