The Kremlin’s Olympic Acrobatics

MOSCOW – Next Friday, Russians will be among the athletes gathering behind their national flags at the opening ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã Stadium. That was almost not the case. In the wake of revelations by the World Anti-Doping Agency about large-scale state-sponsored doping in Russia, the country avoided an outright ban by the skin of its teeth.

The International Olympic Committee’s decision not to ban all Russian participation, instead leaving it up to individual sports’ governing federations to review each athlete’s record and decide who can compete, has been met with dismay from some and relief from others. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has proved highly adept at turning even the worst international humiliation into a propaganda victory for the Kremlin, neither outcome would have been particularly devastating.

To be sure, Putin considers the Olympics – and, specifically, medals – to be very important. Like his old Soviet masters, he conflates athletic glory with military glory. That is why he personally lobbied for Russia to host the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi; the unprecedented $50 billion price tag was well worth it, considering that Russia won the most medals. (It was Russia’s actions during the Sochi Olympics that form the core of the doping scandal.)

This is not to say that athletic glory substitutes for military glory. During the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing (at which it finished third in medals, after China and the United States), Russia grabbed the world’s attention with its brief war with Georgia. After Sochi, Putin, incensed by the ouster of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, went for the geostrategic gold, annexing Crimea and installing separatist proxies in eastern Ukraine.