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With #WeWillROCYou, Russia tests the limits of its Olympic ban

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Officially barred from the Olympics after a doping scandal, Russia isn’t shying away from promoting its athletes — who are competing under the banner of the “Russian Olympic Committee” — and taking the opportunity to criticise what it considers a deeply unfair ban.

It looks like Russia, it swims like Russia… but officially, it’s not Russia. At the Tokyo Games, the country’s 335-strong delegation is competing as the “Russian Olympic Committee” (ROC) rather than under its national flag, following a December 2020 ruling from sport’s highest court over state-run doping. That hasn’t stopped it from holding its own in the medal table, with nine golds as of Friday morning, behind China, Japan and the United States. Nor has it kept Russian leaders from rallying around the team, seizing on the hashtag #WeWillROCYou — a reference to the Queen song.

Since 2015, Russia has been caught up in a massive doping scandal with far-reaching repercussions. In December 2019, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) imposed a four-year ban on the Russian team for tampering with doping tests. A year later, the Court of Arbitration for Sport cut the ban in half — a highly controversial decision — meaning that Russia cannot compete under its own name, anthem and flag until January 2023.

National colours and Tchaikovsky

The suspension has put Russia in an uncomfortable position, but its leaders have sought ways around the problem. For the Tokyo Games, they negotiated a compromise with the International Olympic Committee (IOC): the athletes could compete under the banner of the ROC, whose symbol is an Olympic flame with white, blue and red stripes, matching the Russian flag.

The ROC’s uniforms, too, bear the three colours, while a piece by the Russian composer Tchaikovsky takes the place of the national anthem.

The synchronised swimming team, however, was barred from including a bear on its swimsuits, as the IOC judged the symbol to be too closely associated with Russia.

Many Western commentators have deemed the restrictions too lax. American rower Megan Kalmoe said she left with a “nasty feeling” after watching Russians Vasilisa Stepanova and Elena Oriabinskaia take silver in the women’s pair on Thursday.

ROC head Stanislav Pozdnyakov meanwhile maintains that the sanctions are “unfair” and “excessive”. Pozdnyakov, a former fencer and four-time Olympic champion, argues that today’s Russian athletes are being punished for accusations that long predate their joining the team.

‘Anti-Russian hysteria’

This has essentially been Russia’s position since WADA first revealed the extent of state-sponsored doping half a decade ago. Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2019 denounced the body’s ruling as “politically motivated” and counter to the Olympic charter. Former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev said the country’s suspension reflected “chronic anti-Russian hysteria”.

“These taunts from WADA, these constant bans and restrictions will only fuel us,” wrote Tina Kandelaki, a celebrity TV presenter, in a July 18 Instagram post. Kandelaki, the head producer at Match TV — Russia’s biggest sports channel and a subsidiary of the state energy company Gazprom — encouraged her 2.7 million followers to use the hashtag #WeWillROCYou on social media.

It didn’t take long for the authorities to join in. State-run media, foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and a variety of artists and influencers aligned with the Kremlin all promoted the hashtag. It also made its way into the streets of Moscow, where a huge mural depicts a Russian judoka taking down an opponent with the acronym WADA inscribed on his kimono.

Lukas Aubin, a scholar in geopolitics and the author of a recent book on sports and power in Putin’s Russia, says the Kremlin’s goals in this campaign are fourfold: “To encourage the Russian athletes, crystallise patriotic sentiment around the Russian Olympic team, boost morale in a humiliating context and politicise the event all while depoliticising it”, in a very Russian paradox.

Indeed, Putin has repeatedly said that sporting events are not the place to broadcast political messages, even as Russia has consistently used them to wield soft power.

Sticking to the script

The talking points distributed to Russian athletes ahead of the Games offer a case in point. If asked by press about the Black Lives Matter movement, the Russians were told to respond that supporting the movement is a personal choice, but that “the Olympics should not become a platform for any actions and gestures”.

If asked about doping, meanwhile, the athletes are encouraged not to comment — a more diplomatic response than the one offered by Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for the Russian foreign ministry, in a July 25 Instagram post. The video shows her punching a dummy labelled “Press” before taking reporters’ questions about the Olympics. It is captioned simply: #wewillrocyou.

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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