What the Olympic doping scandal says about the decline of Putin’s Russia

Drug taking in sport can be seen as a metaphor for the country’s ills: denial, bluster and blame providing a recipe for isolation and stagnation.

The article was first published by The Guardian on 27 July 2016. 

Moscow has dodged a bullet with the International Olympic Committee’s decision not to impose a blanket ban on its athletes, but there is no doubt that the ongoing doping scandal has embarrassed the government – and offered some interesting insights into the state of the country under Vladimir Putin.

In Russia, sport and politics are inextricably mixed – from the use of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics as an exercise in soft power to the cultivation of non-western nations through the 2013 World Student Games in Kazan.

Now doping has come to be seen as a metaphor for the way Putin’s Russia operates; a place where the end justifies the means and winning is the only acceptable outcome.

But a closer look at the narrative behind the doping scandal and the national response to it – a narrative that also informs both foreign and domestic policy – suggests another metaphor; one that describes a country suffering under complacency and heading for stagnation:

1. The winner takes it all

Everyone likes to win and success in sport is a source of national pride at least, a powerful political instrument at best. For the Soviets, sport was a useful way of sublimating cold war rivalries and demonstrating the superiority of the Soviet system to a decadent and declining west.

For Putin’s Russia, however, the audience is primarily domestic. It may sound like a pedantic distinction, but it’s important to see that the point is not so much to beat the west as to win.

Just as Putin’s own political persona is built as much on his shirtless macho adventures as his acts of leadership and governance, so too today’s Russian state legitimises itself through success. The flip side, of course, is that it is hurt by failure.

The breast-beating outrage at the poor performance of the national football team in the 2016 European Championship very quickly became used as a wider metaphor for the state of the nation. The Communist party declared that the team was as soft as the ruling United Russia party, saying a “Stalinist mobilisation” was needed for future success.

And this is not just about sport. Under Putin there has been a resurgence in the traditional drive to prove that Russians did everything, discovered everything and knew everything earlier and better than anyone else.

There have been widespread claims of achievements from the suggestion that Russian Alexander Popov invented the radio before Guglielmo Marconi (he and others did indeed experiment, but Marconi built on prior research to create something reliably working), to the surreal fantasy that Russians founded Rome.

Beyond the potential damage to the regime when even trivial contests are lost, this points to another factor that fuels Russia’s confrontational stance in foreign affairs. If you believe not only that the world is against you but also that every contest has only winners and losers – no flabby, liberal, collaborative games here – then inevitably you seek to win, or at the very least ensure everyone else loses.

Part of the difficulty in finding common ground with Russia, whether over Syria or dealing with climate change, is precisely this mania for “winning” and the assumption that anything that is good for someone else is bad for Russia.

2. Rules are made to be broken

Russians rightly pride themselves on their inventiveness, and anyone who has seen a driver somehow make a stalled engine run with a piece of string and some chewing gum or an ordinary citizen pick their way through byzantine and hostile bureaucracy using wit, contacts and strategic gifts, can only agree.

The depressing aspect to this triumph of human creativity is the degree to which the Russian state will so often turn considerable thought, effort and capital to finding ways of achieving things they could have won fairly through underhand means.

After all, Russia has already tested the tolerances of the Olympic ideal of amateurs committed to sport for its own sake by providing cash rewards and lucrative opportunities for successful trainers and athletes – professionalising them by the back door. (In fairness, this is not wholly absent in the west.)

But then it went further and turned to its own intelligence services. The infamous Federal Security Service played a central role in the doping scandal, demonstrating the extent to which the security and intelligence agencies have become the Kremlin’s Swiss Army knife, the instrument of choice to deal with any difficulty – from political opposition to technological backwardness.

3. Everyone’s doing it

Part of the reason why not only the state but so many within the Russian sporting world were willing to break the rules with such comprehensive zeal was an assumption that – to an extent, at least – they were only doing what everyone else did.

This is a common misperception in Russia, and a powerful one, that not only justifies a variety of questionable practice but in effect demands it. For example, for all the current (and heavily over-blown) western concern about Russian “hybrid war” – conflicts fought at least as much through political and economic means as through actual fighting – Moscow actually regards itself as being on the defensive. It believes that the west is the true master of this gibridnaya voina (they even use the western term, translated), deployed to topple regimes from Ukraine to Libya, and Russia is simply catching up.

In the same way attempts to challenge Russian state propaganda run up against the commonly held assumption that western media is every bit as biased. In a world where everyone lies, what is there but to pick the safest and most comforting falsehood?

4. Russia gets a rotten deal

So if everyone else does the same but is luckier, sneakier or in better control of the laws and structures, when Russia is caught and punished this is seen not as justice but as discrimination. Russian athletics federation president, Dmitry Shlyakhtin, for example, claimed that “other countries don’t have any fewer problems … but for some reason they’re searching for problems in Russia all the time.”

The classic Kremlin playbook is to present everything in these terms, from defending the annexation of Crimea by referencing Nato’s unilateral actions in Yugoslavia to complaints that Russia’s defeat in the 2016 Eurovision song contest was politically motivated.

To the outside world, this can often look ridiculous and adolescent but it’s important to remember that the audience is at least as much domestic, where government’s narrative of victimhood is more convincing.

In the short term, Putin seems to be setting up a win-win situation. If he cheats and gets away with it, he wins as the victor. If he cheats and gets caught and excoriated, he wins as the victim.

But the long-term effects are much more problematic. This approach leaves Russia looking like a serial offender, unable to be trusted. The nation that cries wolf finds it harder to get a sympathetic ear when it is in the right.

Suggestions in the west that Russian football hooligans in France were “hybrid warriors”, for example, demonstrates the extent to which some are now prepared to believe the worst of Moscow every time.

There is also a domestic cost. Pretending that problems are not problems but merely hostile foreign talking points is a recipe for complacency and stagnation. The measures adopted to address doping in Russian sport are not only too late but essentially cosmetic – not least as they will be overseen by the sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, whom the Wada report claimed organised the doping operation in the first place.

Too much threadbare bluster, too little willingness to accept responsibility. Too little reform, too late, too grudgingly applied. In this respect, the doping scandal and the Kremlin’s responses are also a metaphor for the reasons why Putin’s Russia is in decline.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Visiting Fellow

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