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Putin May Welcome a Ban on Some Russian Athletes

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website
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As Russia's relations with the West have worsened in the last two years, the government of President Vladimir Putin has been quick to complain about unfair treatment of the country and its citizens by Europeans and Americans. If, however, the International Association of Athletics Federations decides Friday to ban Russia's track and field team from the Rio Olympics in response to revelations of doping, it will be difficult to fall back on this familiar rhetoric: In this particular case, Putin, a former athlete, doesn't appear to believe it.

In today's Russia, most interactions with the West are seen as part of an ongoing conflict. On Wednesday, the Foreign Ministry called in the French ambassador to complain about the arrest of Russian fans at the European soccer cup in Marseilles, where they attacked England supporters (one of whom died after a brutal beating). The ambassador was told the Russians had been provoked and warned against "discrimination" and the "fanning of anti-Russian sentiment." 

Although Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko has somewhat reluctantly condemned the fan violence, the semi-official line is that the West should just lump it. "They wanted war," Maxim Kononenko wrote in a column for Russia Today. "All these dubious stories about doping at the state level. All these lies about the 'occupation of Crimea.' All these fantasies about some threat to the Baltics. All this nonsense invited war."

Yet Putin himself doesn't appear to conflate the doping scandal, which could keep Russian athletes out of the Olympics for the first time since 1984, with the rest of the "injustices" his country is supposed to have suffered. He told  officials in March that there was "no need to politicize anything or push any conspiracy theories." He added: "As old, experienced coaches teach, we shouldn't weep and moan every chance we get. We should win, and our advantage should be clear, then there will be no further questions."

Putin, who has called for the "heroization" of Olympic champions as a state policy and who rejoiced at Russia's victory in the Sochi winter Olympics -- his multibillion-dollar pet project -- wants his athletes to win fair and square, or, presumably, at least not to get caught doing anything illegal. He can safely say he's done his bit, campaigning personally for big competitions to be held in Russia, milking private and state-owned business for sponsorships of sports federations, letting the Sports Ministry have about $1 billion a year in operational funding despite the country's recent budgetary difficulties.

The way Russian sports and security officials have handled the recent investigations by the World Anti-Doping Agency, however, is so ham-handed that it's possible that Russia is, in fact, not getting fair treatment. After WADA declared its Russian affiliate noncompliant with its rules in November, reporting mass falsification of doping probes and government meddling with the work of testing labs, IAAF banned Russians from international competition. Russian officials -- at Putin's urging -- professed a desire to fix things. Lab heads were fired, coaches suspended and new transparency rules were proposed. That evidently was crude window-dressing.

In a documentary shown on German TV on June 8, Hajo Seppelt, a journalist who has devoted his career to investigating doping in sports, revealed that two of the suspended coaches were still working surreptitiously with Russian athletes. The Sports Ministry issued an unconvincing denial, saying that "not a single disqualified coach has been called on to work with Russian Federation national teams or financed by the state." Seppelt, though, never claimed what the ministry was denying -- he'd just caught the coaches involved in the training process.

On Wednesday, WADA published an update to its report on doping tests since the suspension. It was damning; it confirmed a practice featured in Seppelt's film: putting athletes in restricted military towns, sprinkled throughout Russia, so that foreign WADA testers couldn't get to them. The testers were pressured, kept out and threatened with expulsion from Russia. They also recorded athletes' disappearances from competitions as soon as they learned testers were present, and described an esxpecially egregious episode in which a female athlete tried to conceal a container of "clean" urine inside a body cavity.

Against this background, it's easy to miss indications in Seppelt's film that the Russian doping system was probably part of a global one. A Mutko adviser was accused of passing bribes to someone at IAAF to protect athletes against suspensions. A Russian anti-doping official who died in February as he was planning a revelatory book on doping had promised a Danish academic proof that doping rules were being flouted in many countries, not just Russia. 

The wrongdoing couldn't have been confined to Russia: It appears to have been so prevalent there that it's hard to understand how the international sports bodies failed to notice it for years.

Yet attention is now firmly focused on Russia because it is doing little real damage control. To Putin, this is a personal disaster that can hardly be fixed by sending out the tired message about Western intrigues against Russia. Putin is prepared for the ban to be slapped on Russia -- but he doesn't want to use it for propaganda purposes. More likely, he will work with the international sports bodies -- particularly the International Olympic Commitee -- to allow the participation of Russian athletes who can prove they are clean. 

IOC President Thomas Bach hinted at such a solution in a statement last month, saying the committee "would have to consider, whether in such 'contaminated' federations the presumption of innocence for athletes could still be applied, whether the burden of proof could be reversed. This could mean that concerned athletes would have to demonstrate that their international and independently proven test record is compliant with the rules of their International Federation and the World Anti-Doping Code, providing a level playing field with their fellow competitors."

This means the possible IAAF ban won't be final. It would fit Putin's purpose, too, if Russian athletes allowed to compete in Rio are proved to be squeaky clean. Then their possible victories won't be questioned, and Russia's tarnished glory will be restored to some extent. That would be much more important than scoring another anti-Western point with Putin's complacent domestic audience.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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Leonid Bershidsky at

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Max Berley at