Categorized | Europe, Russia, World

Serious Games: Crisis and Russian Athletics

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Due to the International Association of Athletic Federations’ (IAAF) June 17th decision to maintain the suspension of the All-Russian Athletic Federation (ARAF), Russian track and field athletes will be largely ineligible for competition in the 2016 Olympic Games. Due to contrasting statements by the IAAF and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on June 21st, however, there reportedly remains a slim chance that some Russian athletes may compete after passing exceptional anti-doping tests. Some 67 athletes intend to appeal the ban, according to the BBC.

ARAF was initially suspended in November 2015 following a report, available here, by the Independent Commission of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) that “[…] confirmed the existence of widespread cheating through the use of doping substances and methods to ensure, or enhance the likelihood of, victory for athletes and teams.” The report found that Russian elite sport has a ‘deeply rooted culture of cheating’ that values athletic success over both fair play and the health of athletes involved. Most damningly, the report suggests that the Russian government had a hand in concealing what the Independent Commission referred to as ‘systemic cheating.’

In response to the allegations of the WADA report and the ARAF’s continued suspension by the IAAF, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned against the politicization of sport in remarks delivered at the plenary session of the St Petersburg International Economic Forum. Such a warning, however, is pointless and disingenuous: international elite sport has, in practice, never been free of politics.

By its very nature, international elite sport is political as athletes, acting as representatives of their respective countries, compete for athletic supremacy and the accompanying prestige. The Olympics, as the most prestigious of international sport competitions, have consequently played host to over a century of interstate rivalries.

Indeed, the predecessor of the contemporary Russian state — the Soviet Union — used Olympic success to great political effect. Domestically, international success in the world of sport fostered national pride, validating the Soviet Union’s claims to superpower status right up until its collapse. Internationally, the Soviet Union’s 1952 foray into the Olympics was interpreted as part of a broader challenge against what became known as the Western Bloc. The following decades saw the normalization of state funding for elite athletics, a testament to the value that states saw — and continue to see — in Olympic success.

In his 1988 article “The Role of Sport in Soviet Foreign Policy”, academic Jim Riordan argued that, to Soviet leadership, Olympic competition provided “[…] the measure of a nation’s health and vitality.” As such, Soviet Olympic preparations reportedly included the implementation and concealment of doping programs so as to secure more medals and more prestige.

Based on the aforementioned WADA report, Putin’s Russia appears to be following in the steps of its predecessor. This continuing effort to secure international prestige through Olympic medals is nothing if not political.

Tellingly, the reveal of measures taken to ensure Olympic success by Russian athletes comes at a time when Russia is attempting to renegotiate its role internationally. According to Michael A. Reynolds of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Putin intended the Sochi Games to “[…] symbolize his success at restoring order to Russia and reinvigorating it as a player to be reckoned with on the world stage.”

In a not entirely dissimilar vein, Russia has played an increasingly prominent role in international relations. Russia, for example, played a key part in negotiating the Iran Nuclear Deal, annexed Crimea from Ukraine, and is currently playing an active role in the Syrian conflict. From conflict to sport, Russia’s increasingly active role in international relations is in keeping with its great power aspirations.

Such aspirations, however, have not been without their impediments. The most recent of which, of course, is ARAF’s suspension for doping. While such failures cast doubt on Russia’s credibility as a self-proclaimed great power, the setbacks of Russia’s hard power assets—its economy and its military—serve to cast further doubt on whether Russia can sustain its claims to be a great power.

piece published earlier this month by The Daily Beast presented Russia’s T-50 stealth fighter as possessing largely symbolic value, noting that the T-50s over Crimea present an image of strength for Russia’s air force. This image, however, is undercut by the perennial problems reportedly faced by the Russian armed forces, ranging from technical failures to funding issues.

Indeed, it is this juxtaposition of self-proclaimed strength—backed up by the willingness to use military force in pursuit of a range of foreign policy objectives—and public embarrassments—from the current doping scandal to gaffes involving military hardware—that poses such an intriguing dilemma to the West.

Need the West fear Russia’s great power ambitions? The answer is unclear and, truly, the future of relations between the West and Russia is uncertain. But, if this doping scandal gives any indication, Russia lacks a capable base off which to convincingly present itself as a great power.

Image: flickr

Cameron Trainer

About Cameron Trainer

Cameron Trainer is part of the University of St Andrews graduating class of 2016, with a degree in International Relations and Russian. Having participated in the NSLI-Y program to Russia, he maintains an avid interest in Russian politics, culture, and language. He has previously interned with the US Department of State. As such, his main interests are US-Russia relations and international education.

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