Russia’s Second ‘Winter War’

For those who may not know, the ‘Winter War’ was a deadly serious conflict on the sidelines of World War II, in which the Soviet Union invaded Finland, was largely repulsed with heavy losses of over 300,000 troops in just under 4 months, but eventually overcame the outnumbered Finns’ heroic defenses to secure around 10% of Finland’s territory in a peace agreement ending the hostilities. The war is still remembered today in both nations, but is largely forgotten about by the wider world among the horrific events of the broader scope of the global conflict taking place at the time.

Today, however, we are seeing the just consequences of what one could call Moscow’s second ‘Winter War’, the state-sponsored systematic doping of Russian athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics, which that nation hosted in the seaside resort town of Sochi. In an unprovoked attack on the international Olympic system, Russian sporting officials authorized and directed a campaign of athletic cheating via illegal performance enhancement and then organized a cover-up that involved secretive tampering with athletes’ urine samples (I kid you not). In the 2014 Olympics, hosted in Russia for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, the home nation won the most medals, bringing home not only the highest number of medals overall (33) but also the most gold (13) and silver medals (11). Russia generally does fairly well at the Winter Olympics, winning on average 17 medals per Winter Olympic games (68 total medals from 1998 – 2012), and host nations usually get a bump up in medal count, but nearly doubling your average medal count in just four years is astounding and almost suggests impropriety. Since the evidence of the doping conspiracy landed last year, Russian athletes and the Russian sports program overall have been penalized through competition bans (in the Rio Olympics for the track & field team) and retroactive stripping of Olympic medals, but news dropped today of the hardest-hitting penalty yet: Russia, as a national entity, is banned entirely from competition in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Russia Athletes
Russian athletes celebrating in Sochi.    Image credit: Getty Images

This series of punishments for a state-run doping program is unprecedented in the history of Olympic competition, and in my mind is a just penalty for the crime against the ideals of fair play and global community which the Olympic Games are supposed to represent. To be clear, Russian athletes who can demonstrate that they have a long history of following detailed and demanding drug testing protocols may compete under a neutral flag. It is not apparent at this time how many Russian athletes will meet this reasonable standard, but it is likely that the delegation’s size will be significantly reduced. I personally feel badly for Russian citizens, who will unfortunately not be able to watch the Olympics with a national rooting interest this coming year, but their anger and frustration, as usual, should be directed at the autocratic, kleptocratic, and dictatorial regime led by Vladimir Putin which orchestrated this massive fraud, not at the International Olympic Committee or the groups which investigated and exposed it.

This isn’t yet over though, as 2018 is the year of another major global sporting event: the World Cup. And guess who is hosting? That’s right, Russia. Given the precedent-creating decision made today by the IOC to ban Russia entirely from competition in the Olympics, what sort of actions, if any, will FIFA take with respect to the Russian soccer squad for the World Cup? It isn’t clear that Russian soccer athletes were spared the doping treatment, and as of now it looks as though there is an ongoing investigation into doping in the 2014 Russian World Cup team. It would assuredly be without precedent for a World Cup host nation to be banned from participating due to doping, and it would be an extremely controversial move by FIFA. Regardless, I’m hoping that these harsh penalties do the job of warning other regimes out there who are thinking of plans like this to drop them, and restore a tiny bit of the credibility of international sports.

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