Latest Olympic doping scandal 'propaganda gold' for Russia

On Dec. 5, 2017, after determining that Russia had been operating a sophisticated doping operation, the International Olympic Committee suspended the country from participating in the 2018 Winter Olympics. (The ban that would later be extended thru 2022, including the current Games in Beijing).

In announcing the sanction, IOC president Thomas Bach declared Russia was guilty of "an unprecedented attack on the integrity of the Olympic Games."

Yet despite the tough talk, there was a catch: Russian athletes who had never tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs could still compete under a shadow organization – in this case the "Russian Olympic Committee."

Basically, it was the same people, same coaches, same colors … and the same win-at-any-cost mindset, just with a new name.

Still, the IOC braced for a reaction.

After all, Russian President Vladimir Putin had warned the IOC against levying sanctions. Russia claimed it was innocent and the real scandal wasn't that it cheated, but that the United States — fearful of "honest competition" — made up the doping scandal. As such, a boycott, which might include additional Russian-aligned countries, was threatened.

When the "ban" was handed down, though, there was no boycott. There was hardly, at least by Russian standards, much of a reaction. Putin took the deal.

The former KGB agent understood, quite clearly, that he had just put Bach into a gift-wrapped box.

Putin could now cast Russia, via state-run media, as a victim of unfair Western aggression while still sending hero athletes to the Olympics, where their every triumph would be seen as a defiant victory over said Western aggression.

Russia could play the victim and the righteous bully at the same time.

"In the Olympics, it's never just about figure skating or skiing or any sport," Sarah Oates, a professor and expert in Russian propaganda at the University of Maryland, told Yahoo Sports. "It's about national pride … So while the Olympics are supposed to be about how sport brings the world together, in reality, it's a chance to showcase your own national narratives."

Fast forward to Russia's latest doping scandal, the suspension, and then reversal upon repeal, of Russia's star figure skater, beloved gold medal favorite Kamila Valieva.

Kamila Valieva, of the Russian Olympic Committee, trains at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022, in Beijing. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Kamila Valieva, of the Russian Olympic Committee, trains at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022, in Beijing. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

The 15-year-old sensation tested positive for trimetazidine, a banned heart medication, according to the International Testing Association. The World Anti-Doping Agency prohibits the drug because it can aid in endurance and increase blood flow.

Valieva was initially suspended on Feb. 8 by the Russian Anti-Doping Agency but the next day, the same body reversed that decision upon appeal (Yes, the IOC was letting an anti-doping agency of a country it suspended for doping handle this). The IOC is now appealing that decision to a separate governing body.

Valieva may still be expelled from the Games. It would likely cause Russia to be stripped of a gold medal in the team event and Valieva to miss next week's women's individual competition. Or she could avoid any suspension and continue on. A decision will come in the next few days.

Whatever happens next, however, hardly matters for Putin's purposes. The scandal isn't a negative, it is an opportunity with almost no downside.

"The doping accusation could be propaganda gold for the Russians," Oates said.

It is possible, or even likely, that due to Valieva's age, Russian coaches and officials were purposely doping a child because there was no concern of what would happen. Maybe they create the greatest skater on earth. Or maybe they get caught. Big picture, it hardly matters.

"In a tense political climate, Russia can make propaganda from doping accusations against a teen athlete who is a national heroine," Oates said.

This is the straitjacket the IOC stitched for itself by lacking the courage, conviction and foresight to just ban Russia outright from the Olympics.

"We took tough action," IOC spokesman Mark Adams said, defending the pseudo ban. "We don't have the Russian team competing in the same way. They aren't allowed to have the flag or the anthem and many other things. It's quite a tough sanction."

The ramifications of that "tough" action just grows bigger and bigger though, like ripples from a pebble thrown into a lake.

"It fits their constant 'us against the West' narrative, claiming that the athletes were unfairly treated as further evidence of how Russia is treated badly in the world in general," Oates said. "The Russians either spin or ignore the strong evidence of doping. Playing into what your audience wants to hear — that Russia is a victim instead of one who did something wrong — is a powerful strategy."

If Valieva's appeal is upheld and she gets to compete, then Russia stood tall and strong against a system that knew it couldn't defeat her on the ice. Valieva can then proceed to triumphantly destroy the field, that gold medal serving as a middle finger from Moscow.

"Hold your head up, you're a Russian," government spokesman Dmitry Peskov already urged Valieva while deeming this all a "misunderstanding," according to Reuters. "Go proudly and beat everyone."

Yet if she is disqualified, then the Russia vs. Everyone narrative gains even more strength. Meanwhile, the stage is set for vindication via teammates Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova.

Along with Valieva, the two 17-year-olds are the only female skaters at the Olympics expected to even attempt high-scoring quads. (That only Russians can accomplish this feat is suspicious enough). The three Russians were heavy favorites to own the podium, gold-silver-bronze.

Even if Valieva is out, the other two can avenge her disqualification by taking gold-silver. It's "Miracle on Ice" kind of stuff, Russian style.

So no matter what happens, this is what is likely to happen.

At least per the narrative inside Russia, which is what matters most to Putin. What appears complicated, may actually be simple.

Either way, Russia wins.

Thomas Bach and the IOC foolishly got tricked into setting up a game with no other conclusion. Now there's no way out.