With the government investing more in sport than ever before and ordinary people seeing the benefits, Russia’s doping ban could have a lasting impact on a country whose national identity has become linked to the performance of its athletes, Olga Krasnyak writes.
On 9 December 2019, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) handed Russia a four-year ban from all major sporting events. No Russian flag, anthem, or national symbols will be allowed at the upcoming Olympics in Tokyo in 2020 and Beijing in 2022, the football World Cup in Qatar in 2022, or in the Universiades in 2021 and 2023. Russian athletes are now only able to participate as neutrals.
The ban is tough, but it seems fair. Following the Sochi 2014 doping scandal, where dozens of Russian athletes were involved in a state-run doping program, the WADA decision protects the principle of integrity at the Olympics, and should hardly be in dispute.
Frankly, it would be naive of Russian officials and the athletes who were involved in the scandal to hope that they would remain undiscovered, and even more naive for them to assume the international reaction to their transgressions could be disregarded.
The punishment, however, should fit the crime. For now, it is a whole nation that is being punished for misbehaviours of a few. From the perspective of the Russian people, damage is being done to Russian sport overall, rather than just those involved in the cheating.
This decision may not go as far as to create a sense of national humiliation, but it has certainly left a bitter taste for many Russians. In the Russian segment of the Internet, for instance, the very first reaction on WADA’s decision was frustration.
Users expressed disappointment that this ban was imposed on the whole country, instead of assigning responsibility to those individuals who were directly involved in the rule-breaking.
Such a reaction is perhaps similar to that of coercive economic international sanctions against Russia after the annexation of Crimea. Once again, the decisions of the country’s autocratic political regime have negatively impacted common people.
In fact, this ban may have touched an especially sore spot for the ordinary people of Russia, because over time, sport there has become more than just a game.
Starting from the 1920s, as socialist ideology spread, sport became part of the national strategy of the Soviet Union. Sport served a purpose – filling the vacuum of religiosity, along with other individualistic values that characterised Tsarist Russia before its fall.
Soviet sports placards and other state propaganda glorified sport and propagated a healthy and physical lifestyle. The Soviets supported sport as a way to create well-trained – ideologically and physically – citizens of the new state. Fitter and more active citizens came to symbolise the advantages of a socialist state, and showcase the strength and resilience of the socialist system.
The notion of a strong and stoic Soviet people ready for hardship and capable of serving their country only strengthened after their victory in World War II.
Physical education in the country and the idea of the Soviet international sports dominance became an obsession, and contributed to a sense of national pride for the Soviet people, whose living standards and quality of everyday life were much lower than that of Western countries.
In the international arena, sport could compensate for what the Soviet people lacked elsewhere, and success at the Olympics and other international sports events became an arena for the demonstration of Soviet prowess.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia could not immediately formulate an ideological strategy to replace this, so the notion of sport as a crucial patriotic idea has remained. In fact, sport only strengthened its position, and has come to symbolise the power of the Russian Federation in the turbulent post-Cold War era.
One only needs to look as far as to where Russia is spending its money to see that the state perceives sport to be important. For instance, as a part of a national project on demography, in 2018 the government launched the program Sport is a way of life.
Backed and directly run by the federal Ministry of Sport, the program’s aim is to involve 55 per cent of the population in some kind of active sport activity by 2024. For now, that number stands at 39 per cent. For comparison, in the United States the same figure is 19 per cent.
The federal government is also heavily investing into sport infrastructure. The budget for 2019-24 is approximately $2.4 billion. Along with typical spending on professional level sport — football, basketball, ice hockey, etc. — which consumes the lion’s share of the budget, the government is also investing money into research and infrastructure designed to raise the participation of ordinary people in sport.
As a result, the program’s objectives include the regular organisation of, and funding for, mass participation sports events across the country. These include cross-country skiing, marathons, and even yoga classes.
The effectiveness of these efforts could be debated, but it seems hard to deny that propagating a healthy lifestyle and encouraging people to get involved in sport is a worthy policy goal. Importantly, it can also be a way for reinforcing to the whole nation the integrity and inclusion that sport provides.
Participation in sport makes people healthier and happier, and Russia’s investment, whatever its intention, will have this positive effect. One might argue that it should not be directly funded by the government, but with the direct initiative of the state, sports policies improve their chances of being effectively implemented and achieving that health and happiness.
This is why the WADA judgment will leave such a bitter taste for Russians. For the transgressions of a few, a productive national project of promoting sport is being undermined.
Russia is actively promoting a sports policy with serious potential benefits for ordinary people, and the WADA ban puts that in jeopardy, along with robbing Russians of a long-standing point of national pride.
On the other hand, the ban is likely to be appealed, and is short term after all. The Olympics is still on the horizon for a generation of young Russian athletes. One can only hope they will be more committed to the Olympic Spirit and Olympic values than their predecessors, and the promise of that long-term prospect should be invested in, not undermined.