The Kremlin Screams “Foul-play” Against the International Olympic Committee

Written by Matt Wickham, analyst UCMC/HWAG

Contrary to what the Kremlin wants you to believe, Russia’s relationship with the IOC severely soured long before Thomas Bach, head of the International Olympic Committee, took office in 2013. This is due to Russia’s widespread violation of sports, also known as the doping scandal, beginning in 2008, when seven Russian athletes were disqualified from competing in the Beijing Olympics for tampering with urine samples. 

As the IOC recognized the emergence of a new era of deception, with advancements in chemistry and technology to detect such violations, it set in motion an extensive and scrutinized anti-doping process of all athletes, particularly Russians. 

Later in 2010, more proof emerged as a Russian Anti-Doping Agency employee revealed proof of systematic doping, triggering a thorough investigation that confirmed Russia, led by Kremlin officials, had orchestrated a sophisticated system to undermine sports and the Olympics’ integrity and charter. It was a direct and deliberate violation from the highest echelons of the Russian leadership.

Injections of “Greatness”

When Putin came snaked his way power in 2000, he recognized the importance of ‘power on all fronts’, such as in those spheres that can be used as “soft-power”. And so, the importance of sporting success on the international stage was one of the Kremlin’s hybrid warfare tracks, copy and pasted right from the USSR’s geopolitical policy playbook. After all, true superpowers are not merely defined by military or economic might, but by their ability to cultivate top-tier athletes which serves as a barometer of a nation’s prosperity and thriving economy. 

The USSR did this ”well’—although through violence, humiliation, and burnout [read more about this in UCMC’s analysis here]. However, following its collapse, Russia struggled to replicate even a fraction of its success, leading the Kremlin to adopt doping as its norm to create 21st century sporting champions. 

“Russophobia and Racism of Russian Athletes”

The Kremlin accuses the IOC of violating sport in order to launch an attack on the Russian people, claiming that they are the “victims” of Bach’s so-called “Russophobia” in sports.

Maria Zakharova, Head of Russia’s MFA’s Information and Press Department, has called for an “internal investigation” into Bach and the IOC officials. She claims that they are “pitting athletes against one another, opposed to securing unity between nations.” As is characteristic of her, she tells, “Dirty politicians decided to politicize [sport], or perhaps they were bribed [corrupted], changing the rules of the games on the fly”.

Zakharova here, seeks to undermine Western institutions by alleging that lawmakers have been bribed and paid to be anti-Russian. Also, calls for an “internal investigation,” is a manipulation Zakharova knows full well will never happen because there is no basis for it – all members of the board abided by the rules which Russia long signed up to. It was Russia that didn’t. This is an attempt by the Kremlin to demonstrate to the internal audience that Russia is the transparent player here. Needless to say, far from the truth. 

Her rhetoric goes further, employing classic propaganda narratives such as conspiracy theories’ and employing emotional manipulation to demonstrate how Russian athletes (yes, athletes who purposefully agreed to cheat the system and support the genocidal war) who “dedicated their lives to sport” have been denied the opportunity to compete. These allegations are the Kremlin’s attempt to cast doubt on Western institutions, insinuating corruption and manipulation within their ranks to justify Russia’s current and future lack of success on the global sporting stage. 

“Sports Outside Politics” – a Kremlin Catchphrase

The catchphrase “Sports outside politics” has long been a staple of Russian propagandists, particularly gaining momentum since the full-scale invasion on Ukraine. It’s a term coined by the Kremlin itself, aiming to distort the ‘political neutrality’ part of  No.5 of the IOC’s mission and role – “to take action to strengthen the unity of the Olympic Movement, to protect its independence, to maintain and promote its political neutrality and to preserve the autonomy of sport”

However, as Ilya Shevlyak, President of Ukraine’s Sport Committee, notes in an inclusive interview with UCMC, the idea of sports existing outside of politics is a complete farce – “Sports has never been outside of politics”, he said. He cited historical examples such as the 1946, 1980, and 1984 Olympics, emphasizing how sports, like any other tool, serve as a means of influencing a country’s interests on a global scale.

Furthermore, the IOC’s commitment to “political neutrality” ensures impartiality, devoid of alignment with any political ideology or agenda. Russia’s actions in Ukraine, including the forcible annexation of territory, contravene the principles outlined in the Olympic Charter. Thus, the IOC’s stance isn’t about adopting a political ideology; rather, it’s about upholding the standards to which Russia agreed when joining the Olympic movement.

IOC’s statement on Russia breaching the charter:

“The Russian Olympic Committee’s unilateral decision on October 5, 2023, to include regional sports organizations under the authority of the National Olympic Committee (NOC) of Ukraine (namely Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia) as members constitutes a breach of the Olympic Charter because it violates the territorial integrity of the NOC of Ukraine, as recognized by the IOC in accordance with the Olympic Charter.” 

Despite calls from the West, particularly Ukraine, for Russia’s complete exclusion from the 2024 Olympics, the IOC voted on allowing Russian athletes to compete under neutral status. This, therefore, shows that the IOC in no way aligns with Ukraine’s or the West’s agenda of complete expulsion, yet merely acts in principle to the charter.

The Kremlin’s decision to proceed in creating champions through a scheme of doping, coupled with its violation of international law by invading a sovereign country, was made while being fully aware of its probable consequences. However, in classic Kremlin fashion, it exploits Russia’s exclusion from the Olympics to portray the West as untransparent, anti-Russian, and Russians as the never ending victims, opposed to admitting any wrongdoing. 

As the games approach, we can expect an increase in Russian propagandists using the catchphrase “Sports outside politics” with more calls to boycott the “foul-playing games and increased attacks on Thomas Bach as the scapegoat in this narrative. This discourse may find traction among certain segments of Western society influenced by Russian propaganda. This rings particularly true for those in the US Congress who are most opposed to aiding Ukraine, consciously or unknowingly aligning themselves with the Kremlin. However, the adoption of this rhetoric in the West is likely to be limited due to the West’s strong competitive drive at the Olympics.