Lucky guy.

Photograph: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Russia's Paralympic Potemkin Village

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The decision to bar Russia's entire team from the Paralympic Games in Rio has stirred passionate reactions in Moscow, suggesting President Vladimir Putin's brand of patriotism cares more about Potemkin-style medal-winning than how the country treats its disabled non-athletes. 

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Foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova called the ban "stunning in its vile inhumanity," while sports Minister Vitaly Mutko described it as being "outside of common sense." Yevgeny Arsyukhin, editor-in-chief of a pro-Putin radio station, suggested Russia should quit the Olympics in protest: "I'd stop this humiliating medal hunt to the accompaniment of booing. It's time we had some pride, enough playing along."

The International Paralympic Committee based its decision on a report by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren for the World Anti-Doping Agency. That investigation prompted the international athletic and weightlifting federations to ban Russians, after the International Olympic Committee left it up to the governing bodies of specific sports to decide how to respond to the existence of a state-sponsored doping system. The McLaren report doesn't dwell on paralympic sports, only mentioning once that 35 urine samples from disabled Russian athletes that tested positive for banned substances had been reported as clean. Still, the Paralympic overseers decided on a blanket ban.

It makes less sense than the IOC decision, which gives Russian athletes the chance to prove they are clean. Paralympians deserve the same opportunity. Nevertheless, the Russian reaction is transparently hypocritical.

Russia has been winning at Paralympic games since 1992, its first Olympics as a post-Soviet nation. It won 26 medals in Albertville and 34 in Barcelona that year. In recent years, it has dominated the competition. At the London summer games in 2012, it won 135 medals to finish second in the overall standings. At the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia won 80 medals (30 of them gold) out of the 216 available. No country had ever swept the board so comprehensively during a winter games.

The improved performance is, in part, the result of the oil-rich government's growing attention to the paralympic cause. Russia has 12.7 million people with disabilities. It's a large, disaffected constituency. One of the goals of a government program called "Accessible Environment," set up in 2011, is to ensure at least half of the disabled population feels that society is supportive of them.

Russia's labor ministry, charged with implementing the program, claims that goal has already been achieved. Yet Russia's disabled people aren't, on the whole, a cheerful bunch. According to government statistics, in 2014 (the latest year for which data are available) the average income of a household in which everyone was disabled reached 24,273 rubles a month -- $690 at the average exchange rate for that year -- with 22,113 rubles coming from the government. While higher than in the 1990s, that's still barely enough for food and basic clothes; fewer than 7 percent of Russians with disabilities said they'd been to the movies or on a trip in 2013.

A shortage of money isn't the only reason. According to the pro-Putin All-Russia People's Front, which has taken upon itself to watch how the government implements the "Accessible Environment" program, 90 percent of buildings in Russia do not have disabled access. Public transportation is equally unfit; Moscow's subway, for example, is inaccessible to people who can't walk. In 2009, a group of Muscovites without any disabilities tried to navigate the city in wheelchairs and barely managed to travel three miles. Even where ramps had been built, they were tough to negotiate. Not much has changed since.

While the government is spending some cash on improving the situation -- more than 300 billion rubles ($4.6 billion) has been allocated to the program for 2016 through 2020 -- Russia is still a tough country to live in if you're disabled. In typical Putin fashion, the government has prioritized creating heroic examples. Paralympic athletes -- such as six-time Sochi champion, biathlete Roman Petushkov -- fit the bill perfectly. Victories visible on the international stage project an image of Russia as a caring country where disabled people can be high achievers.

Yet, as with its other Olympic athletes, the Russian sports ministry and other sports governing bodies apparently felt the need to give athletes' performance an extra push. The centralized doping system existed for all promising athletes, whether Olympic or paralympic.

Though it would have been fairer to let Russian paralympians compete in Rio if they could prove they were clean, there is a different, painful kind of justice to the ban. Russia hasn't done enough for its disabled population to match the winning record of its paralympians. The athletes, people of enormous courage and spirit, are far luckier than most of their compatriots in a similar predicament, who often cannot even get out of the house without help. Instead of acting outraged, Russian officials ought to think about making life bearable for those millions of people before weeping over the Paralympic ban -- one they organized themselves as they built the Potemkin village.

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

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mark Gilbert at magilbert@bloomberg.net