Vladimir Putin wants you to know that he’s strong. We know he wants us to know this because, instead of practicing martial arts in seclusion, he has written a book on judo that will be handed out to 7 million Russian elementary-school students. He spent his 63rd birthday skating with NHL stars. He rides around on horses sans shirt.
Putin wants you to know that his country is strong, too—Russia is a nation that produces powerful, athletic men and women. “We are strong and self-confident,” he said in a 2014 address on Crimea that he delivered to the country’s Federal Assembly. The West wants Russia to dissolve like Yugoslavia did, he explained, but such a thing will not happen. Why not? Because Russia is mighty enough to annex Ukrainian territory and best the rest of the world in displays of athletic prowess.
Russia did not accidentally host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the most expensive in the history of the games, and said to be Putin’s pet project. Russia did not accidentally bribe FIFA officials to win the privilege of hosting the 2018 World Cup. And Russia did not accidentally overlook its own state-run doping program. It did these things on purpose, and it did them to bring glory to Russia and Putin himself.
It looks like that plan will backfire. On Thursday, the Court of Arbitration for Sport rejected an appeal that would’ve allowed Russian track-and-field athletes to compete in Rio de Janeiro. Russia’s runners and throwers have been banned by that sport’s governing body since November. Now, it looks likely that the country’s entire Olympic contingent will be forced to stay home. On Monday, the World Anti-Doping Agency released its latest report detailing a massive, coordinated system to dope up Russian athletes. Anti-doping officials from several nations have asked the International Olympic Committee to bar Russia from the Rio Games; the Associated Press is reporting that “Russia’s top Olympic official expects a final decision by Sunday.” A program that existed because Russian officials were desperate for the athletes who competed under their flag to win gold will probably ensure that Russian runners, and swimmers, and gymnasts will not be permitted to compete at all.
The latest WADA report, a product of extensive interviews and forensic testing, has three key findings: that the Moscow laboratory worked “within a state-dictated failsafe system” (turning positive results negative); that “the Sochi laboratory operated a unique sample-swapping methodology” to let doped Russian athletes compete; and that all of this was overseen by the Russian Ministry of Sport. Per the report, “The surprise result of the Sochi investigation was the revelation of the extent of state oversight and directed control.” Also, “the laboratory personnel were not permitted to act independently” and knew they would lose their jobs if they did. However, if the scheme unraveled, it could be made to look like the Moscow laboratory, not the state itself, was responsible for the whole thing.
The man at the center of this plan was Yuri Nagornykh, Russia’s deputy minister of sport and a member of the Russian Olympic Committee. All positive drug tests were reported to Nagornykh: If he decided the athlete should compete anyway, the sample was then reported to WADA as negative and the result was falsified.
Urine samples are typically kept in tamper-proof bottles, but as the New York Times detailed back in May, their caps were neatly dealt with by the KGB’s successor, the FSB. Athletes provided “what were thought to be clean urine samples outside of the wash-out periods for any PEDs (performance-enhancing drugs) they were using,” according to the report. Grigory Rodchenkov, the former director of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory who blew the whistle to the Times, would make sure these samples were, in fact, clean. In addition, after 2010, Rodchenkov developed a steroid cocktail made to “avoid detection,” which many Russian athletes had started using by the 2012 London Games. (Before 2010, doping advice primarily came from Russian coaches.)
This latest WADA finding is just the most recent in a series of reports detailing Russian doping. (The Russian track-and-field team was suspended in November after the release of a previous WADA report.) That suspension was upheld in June, then upheld again on appeal Thursday. Putin has described the ban as “unfair” and called it “collective punishment,” the equivalent of imprisoning a family when a single member runs afoul of the law. Nevertheless, after the release of WADA’s latest damning document, Putin demanded “fuller, more objective information that is based on facts” and inveighed against “a dangerous relapse of politics intruding into sports.”
Has Russia been singled out by the global athletics community? Is everybody else cheating, too?
Perhaps. But even if everyone else is gaming the system, Russia appears to be the world champion of subterfuge. A 2015 WADA report accused Russia of “sabotaging the London 2012 Olympics.” Earlier that same year, WADA found that of the 1,953 samples that generated some kind of sanction in 2013, 225 belonged to Russian athletes—the most of any nation. WADA was also alerted to Russian doping by a whistleblower in 2010. There’s more: Fourteen of the 31 athletes identified as dopers at the 2008 Beijing Olympics were Russian. Only one athlete tested positive at the 2006 Turin Olympics: Olga Pyleva, a Russian biathlete.
Russia is not the only country in which athletes use banned substances—USA! USA!—and it is not the only country that wants to bring home medals. But Russia does seem unique in the extent to which its government is willing to go to present its country as the home of strong, self-confident athletes. Great athletes from a great country. The kind of athletes nobody, and certainly not the West, could accuse of being weak.
This is not the first time in Russian history that athletes’ integrity and health has been sacrificed for (what’s perceived to be) the greater good: Physical prowess was valued tremendously in the Soviet Union, so much so that there was an entire movement based on the idea of pushing one’s body beyond its seemingly human limits. Soviet researchers studied how performance-enhancing drugs might be used on Olympic athletes and conducted secret research on blood doping, a technique they used in the 1976 Montreal Olympics and, in 1980, in Moscow itself. Then, as now, “pre-emptive testing facilities were provided to ensure that athletes would escape detection,” as Dr. Michael Kalinski, formerly of the Institute of Physical Culture in Kiev, told the Moscow Times. (Elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc, East Germans were given “supporting substances” without being told what they were or what havoc they would wreak on their bodies.)
In that 2013 Moscow Times story, the former executive director of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency said that in the Soviet era, doping was not “understood as a violation of the rules.” That man, Nikita Kamayev, died in February, two months after his resignation from the anti-doping agency, supposedly of a massive heart attack. He was reportedly working on a book in which he was planning to reveal secrets about Russian doping.
There is no misunderstanding what today’s Russian doping program is designed to do. Nevertheless, the Russian government has not copped to any wrongdoing. On the contrary, Russian authorities have called the accusations Western political propaganda: The same day WADA released its latest report, state television aired a documentary presenting Russian athletes as victims of a “political smear campaign.” That will likely be how Russians come to understand this series of events. Perhaps this, as in the case of Crimea, will be seen as Western pushback against a strong Russia. It may even help Putin’s popularity at home, just as war in Ukraine did.
What it will not bring is the thing Putin’s Russia so obviously wants: international strength. At the end of the Olympics, when the world uses the medal table from the Rio Games as a proxy for sporting might, it’s looking like Russia will be nowhere to be found.