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'Spitting In Our Face': Russia Olympic Ban Stirs Anger, Conspiracy Theories, Support For Athletes

A 2016 report by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) found widespread evidence of state-sponsored doping in Russia across numerous sporting disciplines.
A 2016 report by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) found widespread evidence of state-sponsored doping in Russia across numerous sporting disciplines.

Few geopolitical developments in recent years have stirred passions in Russia like the decision by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to ban the Russian national team from the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, over state-sponsored doping.

The IOC's December 5 decision triggered angry reactions from Russian media, politicians, athletes, and public personalities. Much of the outrage was directed at the Olympic movement's governing body, while top Russian officials also faced withering criticism from opposition politicians.

Much of the international response to the announcement has been one of mild surprise in light of IOC caution in the past, though pressure to take firm action had mounted in recent months in light of findings that Russian officials ran systematic doping that tainted at least four Olympics.

In September, 17 national anti-doping organizations demanded that the IOC ban Russia from Pyeongchang, citing "proven corruption of the Sochi 2014 Games and continuing failure in its obligations to clean sport."

Many Russians offered their broad support to the country's athletes in the wake of the decision, with prominent figures urging them to avail themselves of the IOC's permission for those who meet strict anti-doping criteria to compete under a neutral flag. Some Russians, however, see this option as an insult to their country and say participating under such conditions would be unpatriotic.

WATCH: RFE/RL's Tom Balmforth took to the streets of Moscow to ask ordinary Russians what they thought of the decision.

'Discrimination,' 'Fabricated': Muscovites React To Russia's Winter Olympics Ban
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"They are spitting in our country's face now, trying to force Russian athletes to enter Olympic stadiums without the Russian flag and without the sound of our anthem," journalist Dmitry Zhilyayev wrote in the Russian government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta.

A December 6 segment on Russia's state-run Rossia-24 network highlighted criticism of the ban voiced by Western sporting figures, including French downhill-skiing icon and honorary IOC member Jean-Claude Killy.

The report also highlighted U.S. media reports on the ban, including by The New York Times, which the network claimed "believes the measures taken against Russian athletes are too severe." (The Times report shown in the segment notes the "severe" penalties but does not suggest they are excessively harsh.)

Russian lawmaker Irina Rodnina, an Olympic figure-skating champion and senior official in Russian President Vladimir Putin's ruling United Russia party, said on Twitter following the IOC announcement, "How they are scared of us."

"Forgive us, guys, we weren't able to protect you," Rodnina added in comments directed at Russian athletes.

Another former Russian Olympic champion and United Russia member, gymnast Svetlana Khorkina, echoed the defiance with which many in Russia greeted the IOC decision.

"Break a great power like Russia? No, it won't work," Khorkina told the Russian website, adding that the country "has an army, nuclear weapons, and mighty people."

'No Defending Putin'

Khorkina's fighting words drew fire from opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, a fiery Kremlin foe who is seeking to run for president next year in an election Putin is widely expected to enter and win.

Navalny and other opposition figures placed the blame squarely on Putin and top Russian officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko, the former Russian sports minister who was hit with a lifetime ban on Olympic participation by the IOC on December 5.

A 2016 report by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) found widespread evidence of state-sponsored doping in Russia across numerous sporting disciplines, including with byzantine efforts to manipulate urine samples. Russian officials have denied accusations of government involvement in doping of athletes.

"So Mutko and Putin swindled and cheated. Ruined the fates of our athletes. And now that they've been caught, we should defend them by rattling nuclear sabers?" Navalny said in response to Khorkina.

Opposition politician Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister supporting Navalny's campaign, said on Twitter that the IOC had been friendly toward Putin in the past, noting its decisions to hand Russia the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and not ban it from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro over doping.

"So the doping problem is so serious, that even the pro-Putin IOC wasn't able to defend Putin," Milov wrote.

'Anti-Russia Conspiracy'

Kremlin-connected political analyst Sergei Markov, a former lawmaker with United Russia with a penchant for positing conspiracy theories, accused U.S., British, and Canadian intelligence services of "forcing" the IOC to hand down the ban in an operation targeting Putin.

The main goal of the decision was ensuring "that there would be no Russian flag and no President Putin there," Markov wrote in a December 6 Facebook post.

Some Russians on social media suggested it would be unpatriotic for Russian athletes to compete in the games under a neutral flag. Nationalist firebrand politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a longtime federal lawmaker, also said the country's athletes should not head to South Korea in February.

"Our proposal: If the country isn't participating, the athletes shouldn't participate either," the Interfax news agency quoted Zhirinovsky as saying on December 6.

Yulia Kalinina, a columnist with the popular Russian daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, said on Facebook that Russia should boycott the games and stage its own Olympics at home and give the winners "Audis and Beemers."

Several politicians, athletes, and political watchers, however, said Russian athletes should not pass up an opportunity to compete.

"In the current situation, competing under a neutral, Olympic flag is the best of the possible options," former federal lawmaker and opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov wrote on Facebook.

"Just let someone try to say that athletes who go to the Olympics aren't patriotic," Gudkov added. "Athletes who have prepared for these games their entire lives, who live for them, and who almost had them taken away by loathsome and literally foul-smelling fraud."

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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