Russia and the 2018 Winter Olympics

The Olympics’ opening ceremony was a dazzling spectacle of light, sound, and national pride. Athletes marched in national garb, proudly bearing the flags of their countries. Notable, however, was the absence of one country: the Russian flag was nowhere to be seen. The International Olympic Committee’s decision to ban Russia in the wake of state-sponsored Doping was never more visible than when Russia was entirely removed from sight.

Banning a country from the Olympics isn’t a new tactic, and can happen for a variety of reasons. Most recently, Kuwait was banned from the Rio Olympics for failure to amend a piece of legislature that was “seen as threatening the autonomy of the Olympic body”. Beyond legislation, however, the IOC has a very political history of banning nations. In 1920, Austria, Hungary, Germany, Turkey, and Bulgaria were banned after their actions in World War I. Japan and Germany received a similar ban following WWII in 1948. South Africa was banned for 21 years due to the apartheid regime. The reasons for which a nation may be banned are not merely disputes over Olympic Committee legislature, but abuse of human rights and deprivation of human life: the sports, it seems, cannot be separated from the political climate around them.

Yet the aims and effectiveness of the IOC’s banning policy have been brought more clearly into question by the case of Russia. While the country has been banned, its people have not: ‘clean’ Russian athletes – all 168 of them – marched in the opening ceremony as “Olympic Athletes from Russia”, walking under the Olympic flag in neutral outfits. The sheer quantity of ‘team OAR’ indicates that the aim of banning a country is not preventing athletes from competition. Instead, what is prevented is any national pride. Amidst members of a variety of nations proudly waving their flags, Russia’s punishment is that it is no longer allowed to celebrate being Russia.

This is made clearer by the conduct guideline for the Olympic Athletes from Russia: according to this document, athletes are to “Refrain from any public form of publicity, activity and communication associated with the national flag, anthem, emblem and symbols … at any Olympic site or via media” and cannot “solicit or accept the national flag, anthem, emblem and symbols at any Olympic site”. Most interesting is the one exception to the first term: athletes are allowed to keep a national flag in their private bedrooms. The concern, then, is visibility: Russia, and Russian pride, cannot be seen.

That the effacement of a nation and ban of national pride is the country’s punishment is indicative of the mechanisms at work behind the Olympics. While the sports themselves are interesting to watch, the real joy we take from it is cheering on our country. Similarly, athletes who work their entire lives to compete in the Olympics do so in the hope of being able to represent their country. Patriotism is the lifeblood of the games, and the IOC, in their quasi-ban of Russia, is really attempting to cut off their supply.

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