MOSCOW -- In Russia, pronouncements by President Vladimir Putin tend to be final.
But even amid Kremlin assurances that Russians would not be prevented from competing under neutral colors, debate was raging in Russia over whether to boycott the 2018 Winter Olympics to protest the International Olympic Committee (IOC)'s decision to bar Russia's national team but allow Russians to compete as "Olympic Athletes from Russia" without state symbols.
Senior lawmaker Igor Lebedev led the charge of those urging a full boycott, calling the ban a “humiliation for a great sporting power like Russia.” He was joined by others, including prominent pro-Kremlin TV pundit Igor Korotchenko, who took to social networks to call on Russia to spurn Olympics that have no Russian national symbols.
Powerful Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov vowed that no athlete from his southern Russian region would compete in South Korea under a neutral flag and that all Chechens who were meant to take part would immediately be honored at home as champions.
“The suspension of Russia from the Olympics is not a decision taken by sportsmen but the meanness of bloated officials,” Kadyrov wrote on his Telegram channel. “Sports are meant to unite people, and not destroy the world. Using sports for personal political interests is weakness and cowardice.”
United Russia lawmaker Vitaly Milonov went further still, calling on Russia's fellow BRICS countries (Brazil, India, China, and South Africa) as well as Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan to join a boycott of the games in Pyeongchang: “I propose you show solidarity with our country and abstain from participation in the games in a sign of solidarity if the participation of the Russian national team is not possible.”
Milonov complained to state news agency RIA Novosti: “Unprecedented pressure is being exerted on our countries in many spheres of international cooperation: American-European sanctions politics is leaking into spheres that are extremely far from politics.”
The display of emotional rhetoric, however, was tempered by the Kremlin, which had already urged pause and caution even before the announcement.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was quoted as saying on December 4 that "it's not being discussed."
Peskov later told journalists the Kremlin would not be swayed by emotions and that the priority was “defending the interests of our Russian athletes” and that “everything else should come second."
Then Putin weighed in personally later on December 6 in a speech at an auto-manufacturing plant in Nizhny Novgorod, saying Russia "without any doubt we will not declare any kind of blockade. We will not block our Olympians from taking part, if any of them wish to take part as individuals."
The ban comes amid confrontation between Russian and the West, and it is widely seen among Russians as a sign that foreign powers are conspiring to hurt or humiliate the country.
National sporting achievement has occupied an important place in Putin’s long-running effort to restore the kind of great-power status that many in Russia felt was lost after the Soviet collapse. With Putin’s personal backing, the country hosted the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 and will host the soccer World Cup in 2018.
The Kremlin has consistently rejected allegations of a state-sponsored doping program, which was a key finding of a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) investigation that led to scores of Russians being barred from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and cast a pall over the Sochi games, as well as numerous Russians subsequently being stripped of medals from four Olympics.
As recently as mid-November, WADA's board described the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) as being noncompliant with international anti-doping standards.
The IOC ban comes just two months ahead of the Olympics and four months ahead of a presidential election that Putin is widely expected to win and that could herald changes in foreign and domestic policy.
Speaking on state television, retired Russian athlete Yolanda Chen railed against talk of a boycott, arguing it could get Russia banned for a further two Olympic cycles -- eight years.
“I’ve looked and there is an interesting article in the Olympic Charter: Countries and people involved in sport in those countries who call for boycotts can provoke the suspension of the national team for two sporting cycles,” she said on Russia’s Channel One. “If we start boycotting, we could get ourselves in the complete killing of sport in our country."
Sergei Udaltsov, a prominent far-left opposition activist, was also among those who were against a boycott. “Our athletes must not suffer -- they should go to the Olympics and show that Russians don’t give in," he wrote on Twitter.
"This would be a wise decision that sensible people across the world will value. Nothing good will come of a boycott.”