Well, that didn’t take long.
One day after the BBC reported that Vladimir Putin had ordered an investigation into allegations that Russian athletes were part of a longtime systematic doping program that “sabotaged” the 2012 Olympics in London, the Russian Federation announced it would own up to at least some of the charges.
In entering the fray, the Russian president appeared to have two goals: to soften the blow for Russian athletes training for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro and to get the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to soften its classification of the matter as “state-sponsored doping” and not impose its report’s suggested ban of his nation’s entire track-and-field team.
“We admit some things, we argue with some things, some are already fixed — it’s a variety,” the Russian Federation’s acting president, Vadim Zelichenok, told The Associated Press while declining to be more specific.
Zelichenok, described in the report as uncooperative with investigators, said Russia’s response was reserved for the International Association of Athletics Federations, track and field’s governing body, and “not the press,” suggesting that the world will find out the details only after it is known which athletes will be punished and how.
With a decision expected Friday, Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko said Russia would not boycott the 2016 Games even if disqualified from competing. Speaking to the AP via Yahoo News, Mutko said:
Russia is against a boycott. Russia is against political interference in sport. Understand that Russia is a dependable partner of the international Olympic movement.
The words “Russia is against political interference” may well have elicited a sidelong glance from anyone who had seen Putin insert himself into the everyday politics of neighboring Ukraine as well as into the civil war ravaging Syria, a key Middle Eastern ally.
And this comes as the media chatter — that he and his advisors wish to pick up where the Cold War left off and are scheming to build on the 2014 annexation of Crimea by rolling into the Balkan states — has been all but hushed by the roar of Islamic fundamentalism.
Yet, in their response to WADA, there is a sense that, at least in international sports, Putin and certain senior members of his government really do want to see a level playing field. He said as much, according to the BBC article, following the report’s release:
The battle must be open. A sporting contest is only interesting when it is honest . . . I ask the minister of sport and all our colleagues who are linked in one way or another with sport to pay this issue the greatest possible attention. It is essential that we conduct our own internal investigation and — I want to underline — provide the most open professional cooperation with international anti-doping structures.
Contrast that with the initial reaction by Mutko, who dismissed Britain’s anti-doping program as “worthless” and said it had no standing to sermonize about cheating. He added:
We’re hearing that medals won by our athletes in London must be taken away. But it’s the British system of doping control that operated there.
That Putin instead chose to focus on the charges against Russia hints that he wants to be seen as acting in the spirit of cooperation that is the foundation of the Olympic Games. Nonetheless, he lobbied, the BBC wrote, for individual punishment over a collective ban that he insists would be harmful and unfair to clean competitors:
Sportsmen who don’t dope — and never have — must not answer for those who break the rules. If we find that someone must be held responsible for something of the sort that breaks the rules in place against doping, then the responsibility must be personalized. That’s the rule.
Upon hearing this, Mutko nearly set a world record of his own in walking back his initial incendiary comments, assuring all that Russia was ready to carry out a high-level investigation into the matter and repeating his boss’ appeal that Russian athletes found to be clean be permitted to compete .
As for that boss, one can’t help but wonder if Putin senses the irony inherent in a man seen as publicly longing for the imperialist days of Mother Russia yet, deep down, seeming to fear being booed off the world stage for unsportsmanlike conduct.