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Russia in all but name: the ROC team go to Tokyo with a siege mentality

The Guardian - Thu Jul 22 07:00

As Russian athletes begin competing in the Tokyo Olympics this week, where they are banned from using their country’s name, flag or anthem, they enter the competition with a siege mentality.

Since 2014, the country’s athletes have been tainted by the revelations of the Sochi doping scandal and ensuing coverups, as well as a host of other conflicts and spats that have put a chill on Moscow’s relations with many Western countries. These are the third Olympics where its athletes and delegates have faced scrutiny over doping allegations.

So days before the games began, Russian media revealed that the Olympic Committee had given athletes a cheat sheet on how to avoid media questions on doping, the annexation of Crimea, sexual harassment, and even athletes taking the knee in support of Black Lives Matter.

The document, first revealed by the Vedomosti newspaper, advised athletes asked about BLM to tell journalists that supporting the movement is a personal choice but that “the Olympics in any case should not become a platform for any kinds of protests or gestures”.

Regarding questions about sexual harassment, the suggested response was: “I have never encountered it in my career but I know that this problem exists in many countries.”

And as to questions about doping and World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) sanctions, they were advised to say they have nothing to say on the subject.

Officials said the guide existed to protect athletes from “provocations” from activists and international media who may take a swipe at one of the world’s most controversial sport teams. “Information spreads very quickly and any careless answer that specially trained people can expertly drag out can affect the athlete extremely negatively,” the document read. A Russian Olympic Committee spokesman said that the organisation had sought to “minimise the risks for the members of our team and delegation.”

But it also points to the many enemies that Russia sees in international sport, including activists and the media, foreign countries, anti-doping regulators and the International Olympic Committee.

Russia appears caught between its desire to fight back against the doping allegations and sanctions on its Olympic team, and the hope that if its athletes go and stick to the sport, the Russian flag may soon return to the competition. Top officials have been careful in their criticisms of Wada and the IOC, limiting themselves to saying that their main concern is supporting the athletes.

“The issue of the politicisation of sport is unfortunately still relevant and has not been eliminated from the agenda,” the Russian President Vladimir Putin said late last month in some of his only comments on the upcoming Olympics. “The rights and interests of our athletes must be protected from any arbitrariness.”

Pro-government media commentators have been more aggressive in attacking the doping ban, which they have portrayed as an extension of geopolitics. “Everything is politicised in this world,” complained Tina Kandelaki, a Russian television presenter and PR specialist, who also pointed to rigged voting at Eurovision and disputed refereeing decisions at Euro 2020 in an emotional post on Instagram calling for Russians to support the Olympic team.

Joined by Timati, a rapper and entrepreneur who previously featured on a track called My Best Friend is President Putin, she has called for supporters to post Instagram stories with the hashtag #wewillROCyou (Russian athletes are officially recognised as members of ROC, an abbreviation of Russian Olympic Committee).

“All of these humiliations from Wada, these constant bans and restrictions, they will just energise [us],” wrote Kandelaki. So far, the hashtag has just over 1,700 posts on Instagram.

But otherwise, it has been a muted run-up to the Olympics in Russia, where recent sports coverage has been dominated by Euro 2020 and the sacking of Stanislav Cherchesov after the Russian side crashed out in the group stage.

Coverage of the build-up to the Olympics has mainly focused on the marginalia of how Russia’s ongoing punishment for doping infringements will be enforced.

Russian gold medalists will stand on the podium and hear Piano Concerto No 1 by composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky instead of the national anthem. The flag is banned but their uniforms will feature the national colours of white, blue and red. And the synchronised swimming team has complained that its swimsuit design was rejected because it bore a depiction of a bear.

“[The rules] must be implemented,” said Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, when asked about the incident earlier this month. Then, he quipped: “Let’s look at this issue from another angle: the IOC has officially recognised the bear as a symbol of Russia.”

The ROC team, as Russia will be called, is still expected to come in third in the medal count. And when it comes to all other issues, the athletes have been told that the easiest way to end a conversation is a simple: “No comment.”