Russian athletes at the Tokyo Olympics are like high school kids who roll their eyes behind the principal’s back during detention—except in their case, they are serving what increasingly looks like a farcical sentence for their nation’s seemingly endless doping scandals.
Casual viewers of the Games might be forgiven for missing the fact that Russia is supposedly still on an Olympic timeout. Unlike at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics—at which Russian athletes had to wear gray uniforms with no markings, parade under the generic Olympic flag, and have their winnings celebrated by the Olympic anthem—at Tokyo their uniforms have thick stripes of white, blue, and red in the same order they appear on the Russian flag; they fly the flag of the Russian Olympic Committee with white, blue, and red flames above the Olympic rings; and they get to hear Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 when they win gold.
So, Russian athletes have gone from being neutral athletes from a country that cannot be mentioned to athletes representing the Olympic committee of that very nation. NBC, interestingly, has pretty much dispensed with the charade in its TV coverage, referring to Russian athletes throughout as representing, well, Russia. And these “Russian Olympic Committee” athletes are doing pretty well, currently in third in the total medal count, behind the far larger delegations from China and the United States.
Among many of their competitors, there is a sense of unease surrounding Russia’s participation. After losing the gold to Evgeny Rylov in the 200-meter backstroke, American swimmer Ryan Murphy said at a press conference:
“It is a huge mental drain on me … that I’m swimming in a race that’s probably not clean,” Murphy said. “It frustrates me, but I have to swim the field that’s next to me. I don’t have the bandwidth to train for the Olympics at a very high level and try to lobby the people who are making the decisions that they’re making the wrong decisions.”
Elsewhere at the Games, American rower Megan Kalmoe said that “seeing a crew who shouldn’t even be here walk away with a silver is a nasty feeling,” referring to Vasilisa Stepanova and Elena Oriabinskaia’s medal in the pairs, and Russian tennis star Daniil Medvedev lost his cool when a reporter asked him if he felt he and all Russian competitors carried around a “stigma of cheaters.”
Firing back at Ryan Murphy’s comments after Rylov’s win, the Russian Olympic Committee posted on Twitter (alongside Murphy’s photo):
You have to know how to lose. But not everyone can. And here we go again—the same old song about Russian doping is played by the old music box. Someone is diligently turning the handle. English propaganda is oozing verbal sweat onto the Tokyo Games. Through the mouths of athletes offended by defeats. We will not console you. We’ll forgive those who are weaker. God is their judge. He’s our helper.
The Twitter feed of the Russian Embassy in the United Kingdom had a more measured reaction: “Athletes’ emotions are understandable. Media cynically stoking them is pathetic.”
This is already the third Olympics Russia has participated in since the World Anti-Doping Agency reported in 2016 that Russian authorities operated an elaborate doping program from 2011 to 2015. (The period included the London 2012 Summer Olympics and Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.) The investigation revealed that officials systematically swapped tainted urine samples from Russian athletes for clean ones. As a result, more than 100 Russian athletes were banned from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, and the strictures separating individual athletes’ participation from Russian participation went into effect and carried on through Pyeongchang. To avoid the extension of these bans, the Kremlin acknowledged doping manipulations (though it never agreed that the state ran the doping scheme) and allowed WADA to access testing data from the Moscow laboratory. Still, some of the information appeared to have been tampered with. So, in 2019, Russia was banned from the Olympics for four more years.
But then, crucially, last year the Court of Arbitration for Sport sided with a Russian appeal on many grounds, reduced the ban to two years, and eased many of the restrictions on Russian athletes.
At the Rio Games, only 271 Russian athletes (70 percent of the original team) were allowed to come, but the Russian delegation at the Tokyo Olympics is more extensive—335 members. The number of affected athletes varies depending on the sport and its governing federation, and this week as track and field takes center stage at the Games, Russia’s punishment will become more tangible, as World Athletics has capped the number of Russian athletes at 10.
The biggest favor that the Court of Arbitration for Sport did for Russia when tweaking the sanctions it must observe was in providing it with the “ROC” designation, which stands for the Russian Olympic Committee. It might not be that obvious, but it gave a lot of room for Russian propaganda creativity.
Russian officials quickly transformed “ROC” into “ROCK.” The general producer of a state-run sports channel, Match TV, Tina Kandelaki, started a social media campaign under the #WeWillROCYou hashtag, referencing the Queen song. “Olympics is the place where we will show and prove that we are Russians. All these insults and bans of WADA only fuel us,” wrote Kandelaki on her Instagram.
Indeed, back in Russia, the official line is that all these Olympic sanctions are politically motivated, and part and parcel of a larger geo-strategic move on the part of the West to deny Russia its rightful status in the world. In 2019, then–Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev called the new Olympic ban “chronic anti-Russian hysteria.” This is also the message Russians receive from the state-owned media (which dominates Russian TV). The WeWillROCYou hashtag has become more popular after Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov promoted it in a speech. He called “We Will Rock You” an American song (though it is actually British) and said that the current title of the Russian team additionally motivates athletes to win. Lavrov’s subordinate, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, even created a controversial (to say the least) video. In the beginning, she is punching a mannequin with the label “Press” before going to a press conference. Then one of the journalists asks Zakharova what she thinks about the concerns of Americans that Russia would hack the Olympics (the U.S. actually didn’t express such concerns). She answers, “It is an excellent excuse for American failures. However, they should not forget to link their wins to Russian hackers as well.”
So far, there are about 16,000 posts on Instagram tagged #WeWillROCYou. On TikTok, the hashtag has almost 100 million views. Users post videos of Russians getting gold medals in Tokyo with the caption “We can win medals without a flag and an anthem.” Famous Russian DJ Smash mixed “We Will Rock You” and Piano Concerto No. 1. Many Russians on TikTok used DJ Smash’s piece as a background for their videos.
Russians even managed to use the hashtag offline: It appeared in the form of graffiti on buildings in major Russian cities. One image, captured in Moscow, depicts a Russian athlete flooring a competitor with “WADA” on their uniform. Authorities are likely behind the graffiti, because all images that are not approved by the state (like the portrait of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny) get removed quickly. Moreover, as Sports.ru found out, most of the posts on social media under #WeWillROCYou are made by accounts linked to the government.
Regardless of how hard the Kremlin may be working to stoke Olympic-inspired patriotism (as plenty of other governments do), Russians, like people everywhere, don’t need much prodding to rally around their athletes and cheer for them. And the farcical nature of the sanctions they’re competing under serve to minimize the initial offense in public opinion, playing into official complaints that the world order is simply out to get Russia.
And so the Games, and Tchaikovsky, play on, with plenty of reasonable people in Russia and elsewhere feeling that Russian athletes who were never caught doping should have their chance at an Olympics, regardless of previous mistakes by their peers and those governing Russian sports.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.