Their country — ROC — appears on no atlas. Their flag will be that of their national Olympic committee. Their anthem will be a fragment of Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1.”
The Russian athletes who’ll be competing in the Tokyo Games that begin Friday officially will participate as neutrals. The word “Russia” has been banned as part of its punishment for a state-supervised doping program that during the past decade has been unmatched in its breadth and brazenness. Thus has the country that was the centerpiece of the Soviet Union’s sporting juggernaut become a global pariah.
Yet, despite penalties that are largely symbolic, Russia still will have an oversized presence at these Summer Games with a delegation of 335 athletes in 30 sports. And even without their nation’s name on the front of their red, white, and blue uniforms, there’ll be little doubt as to which nation the competitors represent.
“You don’t really need to have a strong imagination in those uniforms that you saw,” Russian Olympic Committee president Stanislav Pozdnyakov observed when the design was unveiled in April. “Our national flag can be seen really, really obviously.”
The flag that the athletes will march behind at the opening ceremonies and see above the medal stand will feature the logo of their national Olympic committee (ROC) which has red, white, and blue flames above the five Olympic rings.
“I remain an athlete from Russia,” said sport climber Yulia Kaplina. “Of course, it’s a shame that we don’t have our national flag or anthem, but they’re in my heart.”
After originally having been banned from international competition for four years in 2019 by the World Anti-Doping Agency, the Motherland is happy to be taking part in the Games at all. When the Court of Arbitration for Sport halved the suspension last December — even as it forbade the use of the country’s name, banner, and anthem — the Russians viewed the decision as a victory. Some anti-doping officials saw it as a capitulation.
“We should have all seen this coming,” said US Anti-Doping Agency chief Travis Tygart. “WADA and the [International Olympic Committee] have manipulated and mishandled this sordid Russian state-doping affair from Day 1 and have put politics over principle once again.”
Unlike the 2016 Games, at which the IOC kept out nearly a third of the country’s athletes for doping reasons, the Russians this time were allowed to name their own team, which has more than 50 more competitors than it did in Rio. That number would have been even larger had the international track and field federation not limited Russia to 10 participants and the country’s weightlifting squad, which had 10 competitors in 2012, been restricted to two.
The Russians will have a frequent presence on the podium in Tokyo. Their male gymnasts still are the world’s best and their women are second only to the Americans. They have the best wrestlers and artistic swimmers and are near the top in fencing. They’ll collect a double handful of swimming medals and most of the track and field athletes that they’re sending, notably world champions Mariya Lasitskene (high jump) and Anzhelika Sidorova (pole vault), are likely medalists.
That said, the Russians probably will finish no better than fourth in the overall count as they did in Rio, when they were behind the United States, China, and Great Britain with only 56 medals, fewer than half as many as the Americans. The era when the Soviets’ and the Americans’ battle to top the table, which the Soviets did five times between 1952 and 1976, ended when the USSR collapsed in 1991.
The shattered country, minus the Baltic states, was glued back together for the 1992 Games in Barcelona and led the count yet again. But the adhesive was temporary.
“That is life,” shrugged an Uzbek team official. “There is no Soviet Union any more. What can we do?”
Russia by itself remained a planetary powerhouse but was slipping by the quadrennium from second in the medal count in 2000 to third in 2008 to fourth in 2016. Coincidentally or not that’s when the state-sponsored doping began — or at least when it began to be revealed. Some rivals believed that Soviet weightlifters were using synthetic testosterone at their country’s first Games appearance in 1952.
Yet USSR athletes produced only one positive after the labs began testing in earnest at the 1968 Games. The Russians had one in 1996 and another in 2000. What became clear later was that they had found a way to beat the system by taking drugs that couldn’t yet be detected with help from their government, which tampered with lab samples to protect its dirty athletes.
Once the IOC began using new technology to retest samples that had been stored for eight years after the Games the number of Russian positives exploded. Their 2008 team was tagged for nearly 20 in 2016-17, most of them medalists. Their 2012 squad had more than double that, a significant number of them for biological passport abnormalities. While the Russian government denied orchestrating a doping program, virtually all of the athletes tested positive for the same substance — turinabol, an oral steroid that East Germany used as its preferred drug for a program that involved an estimated 10,000 athletes in the ’70s and ’80s.
An independent WADA commission found beyond a reasonable doubt in 2016 that Russia’s anti-doping agency, Ministry of Sport, Federal Security Service (the KGB’s successor), and its center of national team preparation had worked together for years on a “state-directed fail-safe system” that manipulated testing data and that involved making positives “disappear” for hundreds of athletes.
Although WADA recommended that Russia be banned from the Rio Games, the IOC deferred to the individual international federations for recommendations before making the final ruling on individual athletes.
This time the IOC has stayed out of the roster business and the Russians appear not to have been deterred by their sanctions during the past quadrennium. Already two swimmers and two rowers who were scheduled to compete in Tokyo have been suspended for doping issues.
Yet, despite its visible chastisement, Russia will be difficult to miss at the Games. Because of the Japanese spelling that determines the countries’ marching order in the opening ceremonies, their athletes will enter the stadium just before the Americans, who’ll also be garbed in red, white, and blue.
“When the Russians are standing on the top step of the podium, everyone will know that they are Russians,” predicted Tatyana Pokrovskaya, their artistic swimming coach. “And probably several athletes will be singing the anthem.”