Vladimir Putin has said Russia will not ban its athletes from competing at the 2018 winter Olympics, despite fury in the country at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decision to kick the Russian national team out of the games.
In order to compete, Russian athletes will have to prove they did not take part in doping practices, and compete under a neutral flag. The IOC announcement on Tuesday evening was met by a wave of righteous anger, as Russian officials and public figures decried it as “war”, “racism” and “genocide”.
Putin too questioned the ban, but said the state would not force those athletes who wanted to compete from doing so: “We will not declare a ban, we won’t stop our Olympians from taking part if some of them want to do so in a personal capacity,” he said on Wednesday, in comments reported by Interfax.
In the responses of other officials, the allegations of doping were hardly mentioned as officials and ordinary Russians attempted to portray the punishments merely as the west acting to keep brave Russia down.
“They are so scared of us,” wrote Irina Rodnina, the former Olympic skating champion who is now a pro-Kremlin MP, on Twitter. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of a pro-Kremlin ultra-nationalist party, called the decision “political and sporting racism”.
Konstantin Kosachev, chair of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of Russia’s parliament, said the decision was “part of the general western policy of holding Russia back” – a theme that was developed by other officials.
“They are always trying to put us down in everything – our way of life, our culture, our history and now our sport,” wrote Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, in a Facebook post.
Zakharova lumped in the Olympics ban with “world war, the collapse of the Soviet Union and sanctions” as ills the west had supposedly imposed on Russia.
Sergei Alekseyev, the head of the Association of Sports Lawyers, told Parliamentskaya Gazeta newspaper: “Basically, Russians have been discriminated against based on their nationality, which is no more and no less than genocide.”
A decision on whether Russian athletes will boycott the Games rather than compete as neutrals has yet to be made, and Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov was one of the few voices urging calm , stating that the IOC decision should be “seriously and deeply analysed” before any decision was taken.
Although few people in Russia accept there may be truth to the allegations of a systematic, state-backed doping system made by the whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov, there is anger at Mutko for his failure to prevent a national ban. A Communist MP, Valery Rashkin, called on Wednesday for Mutko to resign and said he planned to take the minister to court for besmirching Russia’s honour on the international stage.
Opinions are divided on whether Russian athletes should agree to take part as neutral competitors or whether the country should boycott the Games.
“My personal position is that to go as a team under the white flag is unacceptable,” Kosachev wrote. “But it’s also unfair and wrong to forbid our athletes from taking part in a competition they’ve prepared for their whole lives. Each person should decide for themselves.”
Chechnya’s Kremlin-backed leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, said he would not allow any athletes from his region to compete. The state-run television network said it would not broadcast the Games.
The 2014 Olympics in Sochi were presented by the Russian authorities as a sign that modern Russia had become a globally important country. Russia’s sweeping victory in the medals table was met by an outpouring of national pride, however the doping scandal and reassignment of medals means that in the recalculated tables Russia has lost its first place.
The foreign affairs analyst Konstantin von Eggert wrote on Facebook that the IOC’s decision was a “massive act of public humiliation for the Kremlin” and would probably be met with a firm response. “And I’m not talking about a boycott of the 2018 Olympics, which goes without saying, but about Ukraine, about hacking, maybe about Libya. Putin will not forgive this.”