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Russia wins at Tokyo 2020 despite ban over doping programme

Russia has been banned from the Olympics following one of the worst state-sponsored doping scandals in history. Yet anyone watching the Tokyo Games this week may be confused as to how this works in practice. 

Russian athletes have regularly featured on podiums as medal winners, the country’s red, white and blue colours feature on their uniforms and in stadiums and on television, the team’s name is announced as: “Russian Olympic Committee” or “ROC”. 

Explaining how the ban has been being applied at the Tokyo Games, Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, told the Financial Times: “It’s a policy of justice. You should always sanction the ones who are guilty and not sanction athletes for mistakes or infringement committed by the government or third parties.”

The Russian government has warmly welcomed the athletes’ victories, even though, technically, they are not for the nation.

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, has sent every ROC Olympic champion in Tokyo a congratulatory telegram. “Gymnastics lovers in Russia have waited 25 years for victory in this competition, which makes your success all the more brilliant, valuable, and deserved,” he told the ROC men’s gymnastics squad after it won the team event.

The success of the Russian Olympic Committee team has raised questions about how strictly the ban has been applied © Reuters

The compromises in Tokyo appear to have brought a tepid end to a long-running dispute between Russia and global sports bodies. 

Grigory Rodchenkov, the former director of Moscow’s anti-doping laboratory who has turned whistleblower, revealed in 2015 how Russian authorities had orchestrated a years-long drugs-cheating programme. 

Russia described Rodchenkov’s evidence as the “smears of a turncoat”. But his information was verified by independent investigators and led to limited curbs being imposed on the country’s athletes at the past two Olympics. 

Last December, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the Swiss body considered the ultimate arbiter of global disputes, cut a four-year ban imposed by the World Anti-Doping Agency to two years. 

That ruling related to revelations that Russian authorities had manipulated a database from its Moscow testing laboratory before handing it over to anti-doping investigators in 2019.

The sanction covers the Tokyo Games, next year’s Winter Olympics in Beijing, as well as other big sporting events, such as the 2022 World Cup for football in Qatar. The ruling means Russians are considered “neutral athletes”, while symbols of the state, such as its flag and anthem, should not appear.

Thomas Bach says the ban has been respected but the International Olympic Committee has tried to avoid penalising athletes who were not found guilty of doping © Bloomberg

The IOC’s interpretation of the CAS ruling has been minimal. For instance, the flag raised when ROC athletes win features a flame with Russia’s red, while and blue colours above the Olympic rings.

The music played in place of the Russian national anthem is a section of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, though the IOC did reject the team’s first choice of Katyusha, a military march popularised as a patriotic song during the second world war.

“We are respecting Wada, we are respecting CAS,” said Bach. “It’s not up to us to say, [those bodies are] independent, but afterwards, if we don’t like something, then we criticise [them].”

But suspicions over the Russian athletes remain among rival athletes. 

After Ryan Murphy, a US swimmer considered the favourite in the men’s 200-metre backstroke, was beaten to gold by the ROC’s Evgeny Rylov, he said: “It is a huge mental drain on me to go throughout the year that I’m swimming in a race that’s probably not clean.”

In response, the ROC wrote on its official Twitter account: “The old barrel organ started the song about Russian doping again. English-language propaganda, oozing verbal sweat in the Tokyo heat. Through the mouths of athletes offended by defeats. We will not console you. Forgive those who are weaker. God is their judge. And for us — an assistant.”

Sensitivities also persist about bringing up the country’s history with doping. 

Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for Russia’s foreign ministry, published a video in which she repeatedly punched a crash test dummy with a “PRESS” sticker on its torso and then answered journalists’ questions about the ROC’s neutral status by saying: “The status does not matter. The most important thing is the pride our sportsmen have, and the world knows it.”

Unlike the winter Olympics — where events such as figure skating, ice hockey and biathlon captivate audiences, and a poor showing in 2010 was considered a national disaster — this summer’s Games have aroused comparatively few passions back in Russia.

As much as 97 per cent of the population could not name a single ROC athlete competing in Tokyo, according to a survey published by state-run pollster Vtsiom last week. That may have changed after the ROC’s creditable performances in Tokyo, where the team is sitting fifth in the medal table with 12 golds.

“As they say, if the flag’s not allowed, then we’ll be the flag,” Alena Tiron, the captain of the ROC’s female rugby sevens team, told RIA Novosti, the state-owned news agency, ahead of the Games. “We know all . . . what country we represent. Russia is in our hearts.” 

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