Rus­sia Olympic ban a les­son on how to is­sue sanc­tions

Woonsocket Call - - Opinion - Ber­shid­sky is a Bloomberg View colum­nist.

Coun­tries try­ing to de­velop an ef­fec­tive for­mat for sanc­tions against Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin's regime in Rus­sia should look no fur­ther than the In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee's de­ci­sion to ban the Rus­sian Olympic Com­mit­tee from the Pyeongchang Win­ter Games. It strikes a dif­fi­cult bal­ance be­tween hurt­ing the regime and not pun­ish­ing Rus­sians them­selves, as a peo­ple of great ac­com­plish­ment and value to the world. It also forces the regime to show do­mes­ti­cally whether it cares more about it­self or the Rus­sian peo­ple.

The re­port of the IOC's Dis­ci­plinary Com­mis­sion, on which the ban is based, avoids politi­cized gen­er­al­iza­tions about the ex­is­tence of a "staterun" dop­ing sys­tem in Rus­sia, made in an early ver­sion of Cana­dian law pro­fes­sor Richard McLaren's re­port for the World Anti-Dop­ing Agency that set off reprisals against Rus­sian ath­letes com­pet­ing in mul­ti­ple sports. It does, how­ever, say that var­i­ous Rus­sian in­sti­tu­tions such as the Min­istry of Sports and the ROC failed to ful­fill their le­gal re­spon­si­bil­ity to make sure Rus­sian ath­letes were clean. It sweeps aside as­sur­ances from Sports Min­is­ter Vi­taly Mutko that the sit­u­a­tion wouldn't be re­peated and makes the point that the Rus­sian in­sti­tu­tions that failed to as­sure fair play have to be held re­spon­si­ble.

Hav­ing made the point that it's not pun­ish­ing the coun­try, just its tar­nished in­sti­tu­tions, the IOC banned Mutko and his for­mer deputy Yuri Nagornikh from fu­ture Olympic games, told Min­istry of Sports of­fi­cials not to come to Pyeongchang and sus­pended the IOC mem­ber­ship of ROC Pres­i­dent Alexan­der Zhukov.

Rus­sian ath­letes, by con­trast, are not banned. Since they will not be com­pet­ing un­der ROC aus­pices, their uni­forms can­not bear the Rus­sian flag, and the Olympic an­them, rather than the Rus­sian one, will be played for them if they place in the top three. But they will be com­pet­ing as "Olympic ath­letes from Rus­sia" — that is, as Rus­sians.

Noth­ing in the word­ing of the ban stops them from drap­ing them­selves in the Rus­sian flag af­ter win­ning, or from singing the Rus­sian an­them, as hockey player Ilya Ko­valchuk has sug­gested the team do "if it's God's will that we per­form well." Be­sides, the IOC de­ci­sion says the ban may be lifted be­fore the games' clos­ing cer­e­mony — and if it is, the Rus­sian ath­letes can march un­der the na­tional flag.

Nor are Rus­sian ath­letes banned from ac­cept­ing gov­ern­ment funds — in ef­fect, tax­pay­ers' funds — so they can travel to the Olympics and com­pete in them.

The Olympic Char­ter says the Games are "com­pe­ti­tions be­tween ath­letes in in­di­vid­ual or team events and not be­tween coun­tries." But for most ath­letes, the abil­ity to rep­re­sent and cel­e­brate their coun­try is a ma­jor part of the Olympic thrill. The IOC does not take that away from in­di­vid­ual Rus­sian ath­letes, who can ap­ply di­rectly to the IOC to com­pete. It only takes away of­fi­cial in­sti­tu­tions' claim to own­er­ship of that pride. In ef­fect, the ath­letes — those who haven't been sus­pended for dop­ing and whose tests show they're clean — will com­pete for their coun­try, not for the regime that failed them by be­ing un­able to root out a dop­ing con­spir­acy.

This ap­proach, much more so than Western sanc­tions on Rus­sia with their fi­nan­cial re­stric­tions on banks and com­pa­nies that em­ploy hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple, or po­ten­tially on gov­ern­ment bor­row­ing, sets up an im­por­tant dilemma for the regime. Sweep­ing sanc­tions al­low the regime to say to Rus­sians: "These mea­sures are against you as well as us; they are im­posed by your en­e­mies, Rus­sia's en­e­mies." Such sanc­tions only con­sol­i­date the regime's sup­port. But when only of­fi­cials are sanc­tioned, as in the case of the IOC ban, that spin doesn't work. It's al­ready be­ing pushed by state tele­vi­sion, which talks about Rus­sia's en­e­mies try­ing to hu­mil­i­ate it. But I doubt the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment will go as far as to de­clare a boy­cott of the Pyeongchang Olympics; it will try to con­vince high-pro­file ath­letes to with­draw from competition for pro­pa­ganda pur­poses, but it won't stop or de­fund those who want to go.

If it did, Rus­sia would face fur­ther Olympic sus­pen­sions, and other nations would re­cruit Rus­sian ath­letes keen on Olympic glory. Vik­tor An, the short-track cham­pion Rus­sia it­self re­cruited from South Korea in 2011, says he wants to go to Pyeongchang, neu­tral flag or no: "I pre­pared for this for four years, I can't just drop ev­ery­thing." Be­sides, nu­mer­ous com­ments on the so­cial net­works — for ex­am­ple, this thread un­der a proboy­cott post by an ac­count par­o­dy­ing Mutko —show that a siz­able num­ber of Rus­sians would take ex­cep­tion if ath­letes were held back from com­pet­ing for the sake of deeply un­pop­u­lar of­fi­cials. Ac­cord­ing to a poll-based rank­ing of Rus­sian min­is­ters com­piled by poll­ster VTsIOM, Mutko is Rus­sia's 21st most pop­u­lar min­is­ter out of 31.

In the ab­sence of a boy­cott, the Rus­sian pub­lic will watch Rus­sian ath­letes com­pete in Korea and in­evitably be re­minded of why the Rus­sian flag is not fly­ing at the games. Sure, that's a pro­pa­ganda op­por­tu­nity for the regime — but also a rea­son for Rus­sians to con­sider how their gov­ern­ment has let them down. It's a risk the Krem­lin will have to take, bet­ting that the mo­ments when Rus­sian ath­letes wave the flag of their own ac­cord, and per­haps a tri­umphant march at the clos­ing cer­e­mony, will pro­vide a pow­er­ful pa­tri­otic boost to com­pen­sate for the ini­tial hu­mil­i­a­tion.

That will be fine with the IOC: Sports fans, not just gov­ern­ment pro­pa­ganda ma­chines, live for such mo­ments. Olympic func­tionar­ies have no prob­lem with Rus­sian pride or Rus­sian achieve­ment — quite the con­trary. They've made it clear they only want to en­force the rules, and to make sure the right peo­ple are wav­ing the Rus­sian na­tional tri­color.

Bloomberg View

Leonid Ber­shid­sky

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