Russia’s Olympic Team are the pariahs of the Tokyo Games. And, by golly, they’re enjoying it.
Grudgingly accepted into the Games under the flag of the Russian Olympic Committee after an international investigation uncovered years of systematic state-sponsored doping, Russia’s athletes arrived in a prickly mood, sending home reports of cramped living conditions, cardboard beds, and broken showerheads.
Then, in the past few days, the team has eased back on the whining and started winning. Defiantly so.
For many athletes in Tokyo, the Russians shouldn’t even be here. The four-year ban imposed by the World Anti-Doping Agency in 2019, subsequently reduced to two years at a tribunal, should have ruled them out. Instead, with victory in the men’s and women’s team gymnastics, in the fencing, the shooting, and beyond, they’ve been performing beyond expectations.
After Evgeny Rylov’s victory in the 200-meter backstroke on Friday, the silver and bronze medalists, the American Ryan Murphy and Britain’s Luke Greenbank, both cried foul, although without actually accusing Rylov himself of doping. “It’s frustrating knowing there’s a state-sponsored doping program going on and not more being done to tackle that,” Greenbank said. The U.S. rower Megan Kalmoe also took a pop after Russians came second in the women’s pairs event. “Seeing a crew who shouldn’t even be here walk away with a silver is a nasty feeling,” she tweeted.
Obviously, Russia’s athletes should not all be tarred with the same brush; nor can they be held personally responsible for systematic, state-sponsored doping. Rylov refused to get into a war of words at the pool, but the tennis star Daniil Medvedev exploded in anger after misinterpreting a journalist’s question about doping as an accusation against him personally. On Thursday, after losing in the quarterfinals, the world No. 2 smashed his racquet into the court before lofting it high into the empty stands at the Ariake Tennis Park. (Another Russian, Karen Khachanov, is through to the men’s final, where he will meet Alexander Zverev of Germany, whose parents both played for the old Soviet Union.)
In retrospect, it seems clear that the IOC’s messy fudge in allowing the Russians to compete in Tokyo, but not to march behind their flag or hear their anthem on the podium, was always going to motivate the team on the field of competition.
As ever, winners are grinners. In an extraordinary rant on the ROC’s Russian-language Twitter feed on Friday, an unnamed official complained of “English-language propaganda oozing... through the mouths of athletes offended in defeat.”
“Our victories here are clearly unnerving our colleagues. Yes, we are here at the Olympic Games and absolutely by right, whether that pleases people or not,” it said.
“You have to know how to lose, but not everyone has that gift. The old sharmanka (barrel organ) is once again playing the song about Russian doping (and) someone is carefully turning the handle.
“We forgive those who are weaker than us. God is their judge—and our helper.”