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  December 14, 2017

Putin 'Quite Muted' in Response to Russian Olympic Doping Scandal

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been encouraging athletes to follow the steps to demonstrate that they are clean and worthy of competing as "neutrals" in the Winter Olympics, says author and scholar Jules Boykoff
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Jules Boykoff is a professor in the Department of Politics and Government at Pacific University in Oregon. He is the author of Activism and the Olympics: Dissent at the Games in Vancouver and London and Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games. His writing on politics and sports has appeared in places like the Guardian, the New York Times, Al Jazeera America, and Dissent Magazine. He is a former professional soccer player who represented the US Olympic Soccer Team in international competition.


SHARMINI PERIES: It's the Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Last week, the IOC, International Olympic Committee, banned Russia from participating in the Pyeongchang Winter Games that are scheduled to be held in South Korea in February of 2018. The IOC cited evidence of an unprecedented systemic manipulation of the anti-doping system during the Sochi Winter Games held in Russia in 2014 for the ban. To discuss the ban, I am now being joined by Jules Boykoff. He is the author of Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics . Thanks for joining us, Jules.


SHARMINI PERIES: Jules, the Russian Olympic officials are banned from these games, but not the athletes. Explain what is going on here.

JULES BOYKOFF: Russia is being accused of institutionalized, systematic doping and authorities have uncovered some pretty amazing ways that they did this. They pierced a hole in the wall in Sochi and passed tainted specimens through it and replaced them with clean urine specimens. I mean, it's right out of a thriller novel. And they got caught for this because there was a whistleblower who spoke out, Grigory Rodchenkov, who was running the Russian anti-doping agency at the time, heavily involved in the Sochi Olympics and all this doping that was going on there. He has since moved to the United States, gone undercover, is living in hiding, and is being protected by the US Government, and has come out with all sorts of allegations that he's corroborated with his journal that there was systematic doping going on in Russia. That's the reason why the Russian Olympic Committee has been banned from the Olympics and athletes now have to go through a specific formation of tests in order to qualify and be able to participate in the Pyeongchang Games.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now Jules, from what I understand, the manipulations with the urine samples actually took place in Sochi. Have these types of manipulations been going on for a while and how broad is this problem.

JULES BOYKOFF: The evidence that Rodchenkov has presented goes back before the Sochi Olympics in 2014, those Winter Olympics. So, it does indicate that it's a longer streak of doping that was happening, yes.

SHARMINI PERIES: Jules, the New York Times reported that it spoke with the whistleblower, Rodchenkov, who operated the lab and he says that state officials of the Russian Government, such as the Ministry of Sports officials, were involved in the sample manipulations. Do we know that for sure?

JULES BOYKOFF: Sure, it all depends on how you define the state, but think that's a fair assessment in the sense that the Ministry of Sport in Russia, which is a large arm of the state, the Ministry of Sport appears to have been in full knowledge of the situation. In fact, Vitaly Mutko, who is a big honcho in the Olympic movement, he was running the Russian Olympic Committee during the Sochi period. He was in full knowledge according to the whistleblower Rodchenkov of what was going on with these special concoctions. One was called the “Duchess," for example, that brought together three anabolic steroids in vermouth. If you look at the diaries of Rodchenkov, you can see that he met with Mutko on numerous occasions.

What's interesting about Vitaly Mutko is that not only was he running the Russian Olympics, but he's now still a real big higher up in Russian sports right now. He's a deputy prime minister in Russia and when you look ahead to the Russian World Cup that is scheduled to happen this summer in Russia, he's leading that charge right there. So, the doping allegations extend beyond the Olympics, in fact, to a number of Russian soccer players or football players that are going to participate in the World Cup. Because of the fact that the Russian soccer team has been implicated and that Mutko has been implicated himself, this is going to be the doping gift that keeps on giving. It'll be played out in the media throughout the summer as well.

SHARMINI PERIES: Jules, we know for the Russians the Olympics is a big deal. It's a big national phenomenon in the country. There's a lot of hype about it. There's an opportunity to compete with the West. How is this being received in Russia, the ban and with the Russian athletes in particular?

JULES BOYKOFF: You're absolutely right. The Olympics are massive in Russia. It's really interesting to see the reactions across the country. On one hand, you've got Vladimir Putin, who has been actually quite muted in his response. He's basically encouraging athletes to follow the steps to demonstrate that in fact they are clean athletes which then in turn would allow them to participate as neutrals in Pyeongchang. But if you look at the media coverage across Russia, it has been scathing. It's like a cold war 2.0 moment, blaming the United States media. Blaming the United States, in fact, as this is some kind of political thing. Because Rodchenkov is in hiding in the United States, I suppose that gives them a little bit of grist. But there is fury roiling throughout the country of Russia. But you know, at the upper echelons of the Russian State, Putin and others are just saying, "Alright. Proceed ahead. We want you to participate in Pyeongchang." And that's probably what we are going to see.

SHARMINI PERIES: I guess a curious issue here is that Dr. Rodchenkov came to the US for protection and he's now living in an undisclosed location in the United States under the protection of the federal authorities, but why did he choose the US and not another European country where the escalation or the polarization of the issues wouldn't be so apparent and political?

JULES BOYKOFF: Yeah, that's a good question and it's a good political point. I guess they might say, why is Snowden in Russia? These things take turns that are not necessarily obvious on the surface. The fact is he will probably be more protected in the United States than he would be elsewhere. This is really important to him, because in early 2016, two officials who were involved with the checking on the doping system in Russia dropped dead. They were in their fifties, very suspicious circumstances. So, some people have been arguing that in fact they didn't just drop dead, that they were in fact killed. This is serious business and my guess is that he wished for the full protection of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and that's what he's getting.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now I understand that while Russia as a country is being banned from participating in the IOC and in the Games as a team, as the Russian team from Russia, but individual athletes are being allowed to participate. And in fact, Russian officials are okaying that, encouraging them to go through the process and clearing their record so they can participate as athletes in the Games as individuals. What do they need to do to qualify to participate?

JULES BOYKOFF: First of all, they need to be cleared by the international federation of the sport in which they participate. So, each one of these sports, whether it's the luge or ice hockey, has an international federation. They need to make it through that first hoop. Then if they do, they go on to a special panel that's being put together to look at various tests for doping that have been taking place through time, and if that small panel decides that in fact they're clean, then they will be allowed to participate. What's interesting, I think, is that they will participate as "Olympic Athletes from Russia." Athletes in the past who have participated as neutrals, whether they be from Kuwait, or India, or elsewhere have participated as actual neutrals. They didn't have the name of their country on their jersey.

This is what you might call one of the sort of secret provisions. It's not that secret. It's all very out in the open in terms of the agreement that the International Olympic Committee put forward, but it's one of those special bones that's been thrown to the Russians because they are such a big player in the Olympic movement, and especially the Winter Olympics where they've had a lot of success and where they typically send a lot of athletes. So, looking ahead to Pyeongchang Olympics which start on the ninth of February, we can expect to see a number of Russian athletes wearing these "Olympic Athletes from Russia" jerseys.

SHARMINI PERIES: When it comes to the Olympic Games, the Russians always lead. They have a lot of the medals of any country in the world. They compete heavily with the US, but not having Russian participation in these Olympics coming up, what will it do to the sport itself and to the Olympics as an institution?

JULES BOYKOFF: I think anybody watching the Pyeongchang Games in February will have to be wondering about the athletes that are competing and whether they've been doped up or not and just managed to hide that fact. So, I think that will create a lot of well-earned skepticism from viewers there. The bigger picture is pretty grim for the Olympics in the sense that this is one scandal among many. It's a huge scandal to be sure, but let's not forget the fact that the Pyeongchang Olympics are twice what they were originally budgeted, so they're going to cost about 13 billion dollars when originally the people in South Korea were told they'd only cost 6 billion dollars. They just clear cut an ancient, sacred forest on Mount Gariwang in order to make space for an Olympic ski run that will only be used for a couple weeks, meanwhile claiming to be the Big Green Olympics. There's greenwashing going on.

So, a lot of the problems that we've talked about in the past with the Olympics are evident in Pyeongchang. You throw in a dose of doping from the Russians and you've got lot of people asking critical questions about the Olympics. Critical questions that the Olympics absolutely deserve.

SHARMINI PERIES: Good to have you with us Jules, and welcome back any time.


SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.


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