The IOC ultimately allowed Russian athletes to compete in Rio, though its track-and-field competitors are barred because of the doping revelations (Russia will host its own games for them).
Ever since a Russian whistle-blower revealed the doping scandal in 2014, up to this month when a 100-page investigative report found Russia’s spy agency helped its athletes dope, Putin has said sports and politics should be kept separate, and complained they were being combined as a foreign ploy to smear Russia. But the world has always mixed politics and sports, and Putin’s Russia is one of the worst offenders.
“Putin has spent his entire administration in office taking various measures to project an image of strength for Russia,” Michael Newcity, a senior research scholar in Slavic and Eurasian studies at Duke University, told me.
Putin has projected this strength by invading Ukraine, by defending Syria’s president, and through sports.
During the Soviet era, the state controlled and promoted sport. In 1949, the USSR’s sport committee’s goal was to “spread sport to every corner of the land, raise the level of skill and, on that basis, help Soviet athletes win world supremacy in major sports … .” That goal succeeded by most standards. Soviet athletes dominated global sports (despite allegations of doping). The Soviet Union is no more and Russia is no longer communist, but the state still very much controls sports, and intertwines it with politics to this day.
Russia was, in Newcity’s words, a “basket case” when Putin assumed power in 1999, and Russians yearned once again for something to take pride in. Under Putin, Russia’s economy grew, boosted by rising energy prices. Disposable income doubled and the country boasted a healthy middle class. The country was one-quarter of the famed BRIC nations (along with Brazil, India, and China), celebrated as a rising economic giant.
“The Sochi Olympics were kind of a coming out party as a great power––that the Russian economy was booming, and it was their opportunity tell the world they are back,” Newcity said.
Putin loves sports. He’s a black belt in Judo. And sports became central to his plan to show off a restored Russia. To wrangle the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Putin personally oversaw the details, soliciting the help of Russia’s wealthiest men to dangle the promise of a Sochi transformed into a winter resort. It’s safe to say he did this. Putin outspent the Beijing Olympics by nearly $10 billion, making them the most expensive ever.
Putin and Russia aren’t alone, however, in this attempt to use sporting events to showcase might. The world has always equated the fastest, strongest, most- winning country in the world with the most economically successful, most politically potent. The best proving ground to do that is the Olympics.
Jonathan Grix and Donna Lee, the authors of “Soft Power, Sports Mega-Events and Emerging States,” wrote that it doesn’t matter how authoritarian (China) the country’s government is, or how stark its income equality (Brazil), sports express a universal likability.
By hosting international sporting events they can show the world that they are guardians of universal norms and, in so doing, can construct attraction by illuminating truths such as fair play that have universal appeal.
Winning, like hosting, is another way to showcase geopolitical relevance. The 1936 Berlin games were largely an international advertisement for Adolf Hitler’s Germany and his policies, but are best remembered for Jesse Owens’s four gold medals.