Why these Winter Olympics turned out perfect for Putin

Eric Adelson
Columnist

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea Vladimir Putin is eager to claim victory, and he is eager to claim victimhood. The 2018 Winter Games allowed him to do both.

The climactic end of the fortnight here featured the Olympic hymn playing to commemorate the gold medal won by the so-called “Olympic Athletes of Russia.” Because of their widespread doping offenses in Sochi four years ago, the International Olympic Committee banned the Russian flag, the Russian uniform, and the Russian anthem for these Games. The triumphant men’s hockey players, lined up in Russian red after their overtime victory on Sunday, decided to sing their national anthem anyway.

Russian fans, many of who traveled from Vladivostok to the northeast, giddily sang the anthem as well. Putin called the coach of the O.A.R. team to offer congratulations on the gold medal the president so desperately wanted four years ago on home ice. The rest of the world may place an asterisk on this win because the NHL players were not here, but that will be an afterthought in Moscow. In fact, the narrative will likely be that despite the West’s every effort to snuff out the Russian Machine, the players from the KHL overcame all that venom and had both the last laugh and the last song.

Earlier on Sunday, the IOC decided to forbid the Russians from carrying their national flag at the Closing Ceremony. Reportedly the group debated for hours on Saturday and may lift the ban soon after Sunday’s conclusion to the Games. It’s unclear why the abatement in punishment is warranted, as two Russian athletes failed tests here including a bobsledder who wore an “I Don’t Do Doping” t-shirt. Then there was the Russian hack of the Opening Ceremony, which was originally blamed on North Korea. Beyond that, the falloff in the Russia medal count in these Games doesn’t speak well of the denials of a government sponsored doping ring.

The U.S. biathlon team took matters into its own hands, deciding to boycott the Russia-hosted World Cup Final next month. “In support of clean sport and our own physical safety,” the statement read, “we cannot in good conscience participate.” The statement went on to argue “holding the World Cup Final in Russia now sends an outrageous message of anti-doping indifference to the world.”

As righteous as this may be, it only fuels Putin’s belief that the outside world is aligned against him. Sinister objectives are afoot in the West, so that would explain pretty much any negative headlines that filter onto laptop screens in his country. U.S. skier Gus Kenworthy calling the Russia hockey victory the nation’s “biggest win since the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election!” is hilarious, but it goes to Putin’s message: It’s all a grand conspiracy drummed up by the inferior and the jealous.

And that message resonates. A canvassing of Russian fans here found no trace of concern or regret over the doping charges or punishment. One Olympics volunteer, who would not give her name said, “Everybody is doping so it is unfair they blame us.” That was a common feeling. At one point during the men’s hockey match between the U.S. and O.A.R., American fans started a chant in the arena concourse: “We Don’t Cheat! We Don’t Cheat!” The Russians fans ignored it and went on to celebrate their 4-0 win.

(AP)

The “everybody does it” argument may carry some weight unless you are familiar with the story of Chaunte Lowe, the American high jumper who thought she finished sixth in the 2008 Summer Olympics. After two Russians and a Ukrainian tested positive for banned substances, Lowe moved all the way up to third. But by the time the decision was made, it was the better part of a decade after Beijing. She had spent most of her prime athletic and earning years thinking she wasn’t anywhere near the podium. So the opportunity to capitalize on an Olympic medal was taken from her, to say nothing of the singular moment when she could have stood on the actual podium as the third-place finisher. Landing in sixth was difficult, but learning of the injustice was also traumatic in its own way. An IOC official has said that the retesting of Sochi samples will continue into 2022. So the fallout may last past the next Winter Olympics.

Certainly all Russian Olympic athletes do not dope. It’s extremely unlikely that the Russians won gold in hockey because of some form of cheating. But doping doesn’t only hurt the competition and the opponent; it hurts the reputation of the clean members of the offending nation. That’s among the good reasons for allowing the O.A.R. compromise. Fifteen-year-old Alina Zagitova inspired everyone with her gold medal performance in women’s figure skating. The Russians are the model for greatness in that sport; the Games were better with them here.

But throughout this month, any evidence of soul-searching in the Russian delegation was difficult to spot. The peak level of shame came four years ago, when the Russian hockey team missed the podium completely. This go-around made up for it. Putin likely does not care what lettering his men were wearing or what they were called on Sunday. They sang their nation’s anthem, with gold around their necks.

More Olympic coverage from Yahoo Sports:
Adelson: Russia earns hockey gold, but at what cost?
Last medal of the Olympics goes to most decorated winter athlete ever
Russian hockey players sing banned anthem during medal ceremony
USOC plans to address underwhelming medal count in PyeongChang
Nagasu apologizes for puzzling post-Olympic interview