Extended doping ban dashes Russia's Rio Olympic hopes

Extended doping ban dashes Russia's Rio Olympic hopes
Vladimir Putin and Russian athletes at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.
By bne IntelliNews June 17, 2016

Russian athletes remain banned from international competition including the Olympics, after international athletics chiefs decided not to lift the suspension imposed last November. The move following accusations by an investigating commission of state-sponsored doping in Russia.

The blow comes at the end of a turbulent week for Russian sports, with violent clashes of Russian soccer fans with English rivals at the Euro 2016 in France, and a 'suspended disqualification' for the team.

"It will be painful for those athletes with clean consciences who could compete [in Rio]," Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko said earlier. Mutko previously apologised for numerous doping incidents, but blamed them on the country's "old leadership" in sports. Mutko, like President Vladimir Putin, had appealed in vain to the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to allow Russian track and field team to compete in Brazil, saying a blanket ban on thousands of athletes was unfair.

The picture worsened earlier in June with a two-year ban for using the banned substance meldonium slapped on tennis star Maria Sharapova. But the Kremlin rejected as "absolute slander" new accusations by World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) that Russia's doping problem was "state supported".

Putin, who has a black belt in judo and takes exceptional pride in Russia's sporting accomplishments, still ordered an investigation into the claims that authorities ignored the issue for years, including during the 2012 London Olympics.

The June 17 decision cements the IAAF ban imposed on Russian athletes in November 2015 after a Wada commission recommended that the All-Russia Athletics Federation (Araf) be suspended from competition. More than 4,000 Russian track and field athletes were barred from major international events since then. 

The last hope for Russian track and field participation at the Rio Olympics is that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) takes the controversial step of overturning the IAAF decision when it meets in Lausanne on June 21. Individual Russian athletes are also still allowed to lobby the IAAF to be allowed to participate in Rio as neutrals.

New cycle of anti-Western sentiment?

While Mutko also argued that Russia was being persecuted and that "Russia's [doping] problems are no worse than other countries", the national leadership's response is now the one to watch. The Olympic blow comes amid cautious moves to mend bridges with the West after two years of mutual sanctions and political and military brinkmanship over the Ukraine crisis. It also comes during the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (Spief), at which the EU represented by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said it was time to talk bluntly about divisions in order to repair them.

Now Putin can be expected, perhaps out of a sense of obligation at home, to again ramp up the anti-West rhetoric a few notches. "Sports and national pride are two key themes in his leadership. How can he not respond angrily if they take these away from us?" a Russian businessman who has discussed sporting issues with Putin told the Financial Times.

Meanwhile, last weekend's soccer violence in France coincided with renewed questions about the decision to award Russia the 2018 soccer World Cup championship. The global soccer federation Fifa has been rocked by accusations of bribery in the host country selection process for this and the 2022 competition in Qatar.

But in the aftermath of the turbulent week in sports and with plenty of geopolitical issues to resolve, Putin will be sure to keep his cool - and distance from comments of colleagues in Moscow about the French scandal, with some even applauding the Russian brawling in Marseilles.

Writing on social media, the ex-press secretary of the Russian Football Federation Andrei Malosolov praised a "victory" after the clashes: "Don't the Russians deserve respect for their fearlessness? They beat the citizens of a country that … has always been an enemy of Russia."

Parliamentarian Igor Lebedev, who is an executive committee member of the Russian Football Union tweeted: "I don't see anything wrong with the fans fighting. Quite the opposite, well done lads, keep it up!"

Dozens were hurt in Marseilles, including one England fan who later died. French authorities have so far moved to deport 20 Russian supporters, including Russian Fans' Union leader Alexander Shprygin. At least three Russian and six English fans have been jailed in France in relation to the violence.