Reprinted from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Dec. 10
Russia’s effort to rig the 2014 Winter Olympics — a scheme for which the International Olympic Committee last week banned it from the 2018 Winter Games — bears a striking resemblance to its effort to rig the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Both were orchestrated by Russian intelligence agencies. Both were aimed at reasserting Russia’s importance in world affairs. Both bear the fingerprints of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who denies his government had any role in them. Both ended in humiliating public disclosures but bolstered Putin’s claims that Russia gets no respect.
Russian athletes can compete in the winter games scheduled for February in Pyeongchang, South Korea, but as independent actors. They won’t march into the Olympic stadium under the Russian flag, nor hear their national anthem during medal ceremonies. Russia’s official team medal count for Pyeongchang will never climb beyond zero.
Maria Zakharova, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, told reporters in Moscow on Tuesday the ban was part of “an effort to force Russia out of major sport” using “unfounded accusations.”
The findings were anything but unfounded, based on a 2016 report by the World Anti-Doping Agency into the use of performance-enhancing drugs by more than 1,000 Russian athletes in 30 sports over multiple summer and winter Olympiads. Russian athletes’ miserable performance at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver resulted in a concerted effort to cheat their way back into dominance. A nation where snow and ice sports provided some consolation for long and brutal winters finished 11th in the medal count.
At the 2014 Winter Olympics, hosted by Russia in the sad-sack Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia controlled drug testing. Vitaly Mutko, a Putin crony who was then sports minister, vowed redemption. Putin, who finds sports prowess to be a convenient metaphor for global power, mounted his muscle-flexing invasion of Ukraine just weeks after his muscle-flexing Olympics.
The man in charge of the doping effort was a Ph.D. chemist named Grigory Rodchenkov. He fled the country in fear of his life in 2015. Before that, Rodchenkov developed an elaborate set of protocols for switching dirty urine with clean urine — with the help, he told The New York Times, of the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB. The samples were passed back and forth through a hole in the wall of the doping lab. The FSB defeated the tamper-proof specimen bottles. Rodchenkov is now in hiding in the United States.
Before Adolf Hitler turned the 1936 Berlin Olympics into an elaborate nationalist promotion for the Third Reich, the Olympics were less about competition among nations than individual performance. Now it’s (mostly) bloodless war by another name, fought by athletes, politicians and chemists to sell toothpaste, car insurance and a particularly vapid form of patriotism.