Updated January 17, 2017
Orginally posted January 13, 2017.
Sports is a huge preoccupation in Russia, just like the rest of the world. That seems like a nonsensical statement coming from an sports obssessed America, but, it is true.
If my visit to Moscow taught me anything in 2013, Russians love all kinds of sports, and while they did not fill the stands in Moscow during the World Champs, there were many worthy athletes competing, and the crowd was enthusiastic.
We are at a place right now, however, where the global sports community seems fractured in how to bring Russia back into the sporting world.
Here are a few suggestions on how the Russians might accomplish that goal, if that is their goal.
We live in fascinating times, someone once said. That should be considered now, with all of the partisanship surrounding not only the US election, but also the position of Russia in the global sports world.
I am not sure what to believe. One source said that Russia’s President Putin believes that the US intelligence services are behind the revelations on much of the Sochi 2014 doping scandal and other Russian doping programs. One source says that the reason Russia allegedly dropped some hacking dust on the U.S. election system was due to how Russia has been stomped on regarding doping by U.S. intelligence services. Per U.S. media sources, Mr. Putin apparently did not like Mrs. Clinton. Apparently, he was not the only one who did not like Ms. Clinton. But, U.S. networks and media are all over the hacking by Russia of U.S. political assets. Russian media denies such meddling in U.S. affairs. It provides for fascinating television and newspaper articles.
But, lets get back to sports.
Mr. Putin is a smart and clever man. His experience in the Russian intelligence trade surely taught him many lessons. The fall of East Germany, and then, the Soviet Union, must have added to those lessons. One of the best lessions, from observing Mr. Putin’s actions, was that to always give the perception of power and control. His successes in Syria, his successes in putting doubt into the U.S. elections and the absolute trepedation many in Europe have of Mr. Putin has just provided the Russian president and his people a sense of pride in their country.
Russia wants respect. They do not feel that they get it from the West. Part of that is a lack of apprecation on both sides for cultures and history. Relationships, especially between nations, require much hard work. The US, Russia nor Europe have been doing the due diligence to make those relationships work. Remember, it was the late President Kennedy, six months before his death in 1963, who spoke at American University in Washington D.C., giving credit to the then Soviet Union for the loss of life they endured in World War 2 (called the Great Patriotic War in Soviet Union). Kennedy, after his experiences in the Cuban missle crisis, seemed to come to an understanding and appreciation for his Soviet contempories. Twenty plus million were killed in Soviet Union during World War 2, something few Westerners can fathom. It is sobering that the late President Kennedy and the late Premier Kruschev needed to go to the brink of war to appreciate some of the needs of their adversary.
Part of the problem in global sports and politics is that one must always, always respect and try to understand one’s adversary. I believe that, in the U.S., Europe and in global sports, the people in power have little apprecation of Russian culture, history and the value of sport.
Many times, when countries strike out at other countries, it is not always from a position of power, it may be from a position of fear, misunderstanding or lack of confidence.
The West has cowered so many times in the face of Russian belligerance, I am not sure what the global sports world expected. How do the Russians know that the IAAF means business? With the past two years of revelations about bribery, corruption among other high notes, it would be easy to believe that Russia thought that they were dealing with a sports empire about to collapse. In fact, the IAAF is in a process of regeneration.
That surely seems to be the impression if one looks at the IOC. Mr. Bach has surprised many with his inability to form a cohesive plan to get Russian back into the global sports game. Many seemed to think that Mr. Bach had some magic he could perform with Mr. Putin, but that does not seem to be the case.
In the end, it seems that the imperfect sport that many of us love, athletics, will be, and is leading the way. It seems that Vitaly Mutko, the Putin apparatchik who one moment blasts the West and the next moment, wants to cuddle, is part of the problem. A closer look might have one consider ath Mutko is more of a litmus test for Russian concern about being left of our the global sports world. His belligerence, his apparent kindess (is that the correct word?) may come out of a lack of understanding of Western motives or plans.
My thoughts on Mr. Mutko is that he does not breathe often without a few whispered words from Mr. Putin. Mr. Putin is a fascinating leader. He understands his countries’ culture, history and fears better than many of its past leaders. For Mr. Putin to prosper and stay in control, he must show his people that Russia is strong, Russia has pride and Russia must be accomodated. The Ukraine and Crimea situation was textbook Russian history. The West might not see that, but Russians see the Crimea as Russia, period. Mr. Putin knows how to stay in power and is willing to use the powers of his office to keep that power. Part of the reasoning is that he understands the wants and needs of the Russian people.
Fyodor Dostoyesky, the great Russian writer, said it best, over 160 years ago, “don’t you understand, if we give them bread, they give us their souls?” That note is not just for the Russian people, but for any nation under stress. Many people, most people, on some level, want someone who has answers, or seems to have answers. Many will say that the recent elections in the U.S. support Mr. Dostoyevsky assertion as well.
Allow me to add one more digression before I make my point. The problem with doping is that, many fear that, without it, there is absolutely no chance that they will win. With proper doping controls, proper testing, and draconian punishments, the level becomes almost level, but it never will be level, lets face it.
A well trained athlete with more physical ability, with more drive, with a better start, will beat a well trained athlete just a bit behind them in talent. There are times when the huge drive of an athlete like Billy Mills will surprise the world. There is a time when a kid training in a coal mine in Norway will win global 800 meter titles. The human spirit, properly trained, can attain many surprising heights.
Does doping make super humans? No, but close. Doping allows said doper to recover faster. So, if one has one extra day of training for 52 weeks due to doping protocals, that means 7 weeks and three days a year. Surely that provides a hedge to battling well trained, clean athletes?
Keep this notion of fear.
Russia has tremendous athletes, tremendous coaches and tremendous talent. They really do not need doping. One of my Russian friends, a former Soviet bloc coach and I were chatting. He told me that he believed that many of the younger generation just are not patient with training, competing and developing athletes. My older friend told me that, perhaps, the younger generation is not confident of their coaching and training, hence short terms answers. I noted to my friend that this was not merely a Russian problem, but a global one. Talent takes time to develop. Athletic prowess takes 12-15 years. If you do not take the time to develop gently and respectfully, you will be on the injury heap.
I am saddened to think that so many Russian athletes tested positive. I expect, with the upcoming retesting of Sochi results, there will be more. I believe that, in most cases, they would have still have won medals without doping. Now, the IAAF will not allow Russia back into the family of sporting nations without a step by step revolution in the Russian sports system.
For the revolution to succeed, Mr. Putin has to support it. Without Mr. Putin, no matter what Mr. Bach, Mr. Coe or anyone else says, Russian sport will not reenergize itself.
Many believe, as do I, that Seb Coe will stand firm. In all of the missteps and accusations on the IAAF over the past two years, there have been key improvements. If the IAAF had not stood firm on Russian participation in Rio, it would have lost any mandate its had to lead the world’s second most popular sport. Mr. Coe seems to be emboldened when he is put against the wall. Remember his loss in the Moscow 800 meters in 1980? His father was not gentle on Mr. Coe prior to the 1,500 meter final, where Coe showed his true talent and racing ability. To see how Mr. Coe will respond to challenging situations, it might be good to remember those two races in Moscow those thirty-seven years ago.
How will Russia respond?
I am not sure.
But, as an athletics fan, I know that the Olympics in Tokyo, the World Champs in London and Doha will be less with the absence of the Russian athletics federation. But, if Russia does not follow the IAAF suggestions, they will not be there. And while I will be saddened, I will understand why.
It is truly up to the Russian Federation and Mr. Putin.
Sport is about more than running, jumping and throwing. Sport is about challenging oneself. Sport is about pride in one’s club, national team and nation. Sport is about pride in one’s sport.
Somedays, the only solace many of us have is the sports agate on our favorite website or dare I say, newspaper?
We live in fascinating times.