Wednesday, December 13The Voice of London

‘Russianisation’ Of Sport?

Allegations of state sponsored doping have cast another shadow over the already negative image of Russian sport. Provisionally losing its place at the 2016 Olympic games in Brazil, Russia’s reputation as a sporting-superpower is in danger. President and big sports fan Vladimir Putin is not amused.

Words: Ena Bilobrk, Subeditor: Jack Everitt

Original illustration of an ancient Olympic training camp. Source: Ena Bilobrk, Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung 1938
Original illustration of an ancient Olympic training camp. Source: Ena Bilobrk, Berliner Illußtrierte Zeitung 1938

Slovenian Olympia-sprinter Maja Mihalinec exclusively shared her thoughts with VOL Sport:

“Disqualification is a hard punishment for Russia, but it would be correct if all allegations against their competitors and the federation are proven to be true. Doping is unfair to others who run clean and if they cannot trust Russian athletes will compete clean then I agree they should be banned from the competition.”

But Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko believes “a ban from the Olympic games would only be motivated by the need to tarnish Russia’s image and remove a powerful competitor”.

Eastern European countries, especially those with a Soviet past tend to associate success in sport with national pride. Even the Western world used sporting success as a political instrument to cover up economic weaknesses. In 1938, Adolf Hitler opened the Olympic summer games in Berlin and used it to unify the country and to promote Germany’s image as a superpower.

American sprinter Archie Williams competing in Berlin. Source: Ena Bilobrk, Berliner Illußtrierte Zeitung 1938
American sprinter Archie Williams competing in Berlin. Source: Ena Bilobrk, Berliner Illußtrierte Zeitung 1938

But Russia took its ‘soft power’ to another level. It became one of the most influential countries in world sport. VTB Bank is the main sponsor of the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), which is currently under huge pressure to find a solution to the doping scandal.

Gazprom is the main sponsor of UEFA, FIFA, the German club Schalke 04, Serbian club Red Start Belgrade, Zenit St. Petersburg and Chelsea. The later is linked to Russia through its owner Roman Abramovich and Arsenal’s main shareholder is Alisher Usmanov, an Uzbek-Russian business magnate.

President Putin is known for succeeding at any sport he tries. He believes martial arts teach skills that every politician needs. His personal website states:

“Judo teaches self-control, the ability to feel the moment, to see the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, to strive for the best results. I am sure you will agree that these are essential abilities and skills for any politician.”

Here is a strong link between politics and sport, which the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine (FAZ) explains: “Sponsoring is a device to improve Russia’s international image and to secure Putin’s influence on international sport associations.”

Fencing is one of President Putin's favourite sports. Source: Ena Bilobrk, Berliner Illußtrierte Zeitung 1938
Fencing is one of President Putin’s favourite sports. Source: Ena Bilobrk, Berliner Illußtrierte Zeitung 1938

Russia are due to host the 2016 Ice hockey World Cup, as well as the disputed 2018 FIFA World Cup it would be a huge humiliation not taking part in the 2016 Olympics.

A German film triggered the investigations around performance enhancing drugs. “Security matter-doping. How Russia creates its winners”, is a documentary with detailed recordings and sobering facts explaining many of Russia’s Olympic victories.

It shows frightening evidence of people being threatened to remain silent. They share stories of people fearing for their lives.

But none of the doping tests on Russian athletes ever came out positive. Until another investigation by the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) confirmed the use of performance enhancing drugs by track and field athletes. It revealed that this had been encouraged and covered up by coaches, doctors as well as by state and sport officials.

As in the documentary, the investigation has exposed that those who refused to participate were banned from the national team.

Mutko criticizes Britain saying if tests in London failed to catch the cheats “then your system is zero and worse than ours”, but the decision about Brazil 2016 lied in the hands of a Brit.

Sebastian Coe, head of the IAAF, is the man to determine Russia’s fate. This is the best example that history does repeat itself in one way or another. In 1980, being a talented runner, Coe had to decide whether to boycott the Olympic games in Moscow or not.

He decided not to follow the instructions by the British government to protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It is proof of politics dictating sport but this time Coe acted in the name of the sport.

Predictions for the 2000 Olympic games with technical improvements. Source: Ena Bilobrk, Berliner Ilußtrierte Zeitung 1938
Back to the future: Predictions for the 2000 Olympic games with technical improvements. Source: Ena Bilobrk, Berliner Ilußtrierte Zeitung 1938
Flatscreen TV's were imagined to be part of the new century. Source: Ena Bilobrk, Berliner Illußtrierte Zeitung 1938
Flatscreen TV’s were imagined to be part of the new century. Source: Ena Bilobrk, Berliner Illußtrierte Zeitung 1938

The Guardian’s Barney Ronay suggests that the “real issue here isn’t Russia or what Coe can or can’t achieve by IAAF sanctions in the next 18 months”.

He adds that “at times, as though the entire concept of sport –competition, collectivism, the marvel of human capacity – has started to putrefy a little, flesh melting off the bones, robot parts beginning to poke through”.

The robot parts are the state, politics and the people that concentrate power.
As in every other successful sport, in the eyes of investors, winning equals money. Money equals power and power is what Russia is trying to build, inside and outside its borders. Even if they have to use drugs to dominate.

Only Maja Mihalinec is confident her participation in the 2016 Olympics in Brazil won’t be affected by the decision about Russia:

“Russia is not a leading country in female short sprints so I don’t think it would necessarily be easier to win a medal. But I personally might be able to place a spot or two higher if the Russians didn’t compete.”

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