Why Russia's Olympic scandals could benefit Vladimir Putin


RIO DE JANEIRO – If you think the Russian doping scandal has brought shame and humiliation to Vladimir Putin’s nation, perhaps you need to think again.

Experts on Putin and Russia tell Yahoo Sports it may be the opposite: that the doping allegations and the Paralympic ban actually has confirmed suspicions widely held – the rest of the world is unfairly biased against Russia.

“Most ordinary Russians regard this as the outside world is being manipulated in an anti-Russian campaign,” says Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia at the Institute of International Relations.

The details of WADA’s McLaren Report would likely shock and appall Americans if it were Team USA engaging in such a scheme of subterfuge, but the damning study is more likely to be seen as a political attack instead of an objective review – more Wells Report than Watergate.

“On the one hand, it’s bad they have been caught,” Galeotti says. “However, ironically enough, it’s a perverse win-win for them. OK, so they don’t get that advantage. But they have one more thing to add to their narrative of how Russia is assailed by the outside.”

Lilly King's finger-wagging of Yulia Efimova brought more attention to Russia's doping scandal. (Getty Images)
Lilly King’s finger-wagging of Yulia Efimova brought more attention to Russia’s doping scandal. (Getty)

The most anger might have been stoked by the Paralympic ban. Many Russians have worked hard to help the disabled gain respectability in society in the post-Soviet era, and the decision of the International Paralympic Committee could be regarded as the ultimate slap in the face.

“Now with the Paralympic athletes being banned, it is causing an emotional reaction,” says Natalia Antonova, a journalist based in the Ukraine. “In the Soviet Union, people with disabilities were supposed to be out of sight. If you were trapped in a wheelchair, you were trapped in a wheelchair. So for the people who have supported the Olympians, it’s a bitter moment.”

And it’s unlikely that many in Russia are blaming the athletes themselves, as the predominant feeling is that cheating happens everywhere. The idea that Russia is an offender so egregious as to be cast out of the Games altogether only reinforces the suspicion in Moscow: They’re all out to get us.

“For most people, they see it as an outside foreign decision to punish Russia and hard-working athletes,” Antonova says. “The anger is against the outside threat.”

In a poll this week on the site “Russia Beyond The Headlines,” whose mission is “to contribute to a better understanding of Russia in the world” more than 56 percent of respondents called the ban “Politics – this is just another front in the ‘new Cold War.’ ” That was nearly twice as many as those who voted for “Fairness – Russia has been found guilty of running a state-sponsored doping program and must learn its lesson.”

Russia has done well so far here at the Games, ranking fairly high in the medal count after a few days, and that likely will only stir the patriotic pride back home. Theirs is regarded as a battle of overcoming, of resilience.

“I think my country proves that they still can win gold medals and this is not the last gold,” judo champion Beslan Mudranov told the Boston Globe. “Everybody who came here is well-prepared and did not break down psychologically. We didn’t doubt that we will be allowed to compete.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has dismissed the doping allegations against his country’s athletes. (Getty)
Vladimir Putin has dismissed the doping allegations against RUSSIA’S athletes. (Getty)

While Americans are taking pride in Lilly King’s finger-wagging of the previously banned Yulia Efimova in the breaststroke competition this week, Russians might see hypocrisy. American Jessica Hardy tested positive for Clenbuterol in 2008, fought her punishment and earned gold in 2012 for Team USA. (She actually broke one of Efimova’s records after coming back from suspension.) In the U.S., Hardy is rightfully seen as a redemption story. It’s unlikely that Efimova’s reputation will be given another chance.

The political backdrop for all this is relevant as well. The Russians are being blamed in America for everything from the Democratic National Convention leaks to the candidacy of Donald Trump. This has raised quite a bit of anti-Russian ire in the U.S., but it’s fueled only more confidence in Putin’s way. So did the avoidance of a complete IOC ban. Many in the U.S. saw that as proof of Putin’s influence, and that’s just fine with the Russian side.

“The sense is, what works, works,” Galeotti says. “This has been one of Putin’s triumphs. This is a world where everyone cheats. The West claims to be better but they’re not. The DNC hack, and the release of the emails, goes to show them American democracy is just as managed as their own.”

Ironically, by the end of these Games you may see the Americans and the Russians beating the same patriotic drum: The other guys conspired to defeat us, but we won anyway.