16 April 2023
By Vitaly Shevchenko
While Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine drags into its second year, its athletes are hoping to get back on the sports field.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has recommended letting competitors from Russia and Belarus take part as individual neutrals in upcoming international competitions.
The decision has come as a blow to Ukraine, which has argued vehemently against allowing their participation.
Like other countries Russia has been keen to use international sport to showcase the nation’s athletic prowess.
But what makes Russia unusual are the lengths to which the government and military will go to produce award-winning athletes – including an extensive doping programme that has seen Russian athletes banned from competing abroad.
Wimbledon has also lifted its ban on Russian and Belarusian tennis players as long as they agree not to support their countries’ leaders or governments. That was despite Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina appealing for their exclusion while “innocent Ukrainians are still being killed”.
The Defence Ministry in Moscow has for decades been running extensive programmes to train sportspeople who went on to achieve remarkable success.
The best-known such programme is called the Central Sports Club of the Army (CSKA). It employs hundreds of coaches, operates scores of sites across Russia and is reportedly training more than 10,000 athletes.
The club – which soon turns 100 – has been doing so well that its members netted most of the medals won by athletes from Russia in the last Summer Olympics, held in Tokyo in 2021.
At those games, Russian athletes competed as part of Team ROC (Russian Olympic Committee), after the national team was banned over claims of state-sponsored doping.
Defence minister Sergei Shoigu met the military athletes at a ceremony after the competition to hand them awards and to tell them to start preparing for the next Olympics.
“There is no time to waste, you need to get to work,” he said. “We’ll do all we can so you can properly prepare for the next games.”
Another prominent sporting programme affiliated with the Russian military is DOSAAF (Volunteer Society for Assisting the Army, Aviation and Fleet), which also has its roots in the 1920s.
The Defence Ministry is involved in running and funding DOSAAF, and it is headed by a general.
President Putin described it as a “real school of bravery” which helped train numerous military commanders, cosmonauts and pilots.
DOSAAF has also produced a number of Olympic medalists, including Vitalina Batsarashkina, the first Russian athlete to win gold at the Tokyo Olympics. She trained at the organisation’s Club for Technical, Military and Practical Types of Sport in the Siberian city of Omsk.
Celebrating her gold medal, DOSAAF called it “the highest form of patriotism”.
The Russian government’s hunger for sporting victories is perhaps best evidenced by its programme of doping athletes. It was uncovered in the wake of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, where Russia topped the medals table.
In November the following year, an investigation commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) accused Russia of “widespread cheating”. It said it had found evidence of “direct intimidation and interference by the Russian state” in laboratory operations studying athletes’ samples.
In 2016, another report commissioned by Wada, known as the McLaren report, claimed that more than 1,000 Russians – including Olympic medallists – had benefited from the state-sponsored doping programme between 2011 and 2015.
Following the revelations, Russia was excluded from international competitions.
Moscow denied running a system of doping athletes, and President Putin only admitted that “Russia’s system of doping control did not work”.
But why is the Russian state so keen to keep winning in the sporting arena?
Popular newspaper Vedomosti argued that the Russian government wants to use athletic achievements to keep Russians happy and united when things are not going well elsewhere.
“We need victories as a way of doping patriotism,” it said. “Victories are part of state policy.”
But this policy backfired as the state-sponsored doping programme came to light and Russia was banished from international sport.
Russia was then further excluded from international competitions by sanctions imposed in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
According to Vyacheslav Fetisov, formerly a famous ice hockey player, two-time Olympic champion and now member of parliament for the ruling United Russia party: “We are the most disgraced country in the history of international sport.”