No expense was spared. A $50 billion statement of intent that in hosting the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Russia was back as a major player on the sporting stage.
Four years later, Russia staged another landmark spectacle in the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Billions of eyeballs on Russia during a month-long jamboree of soccer.
Such events were not only an opportunity for thousands of fans to visit and celebrate all that’s good with the country but a chance for President Vladimir Putin to meet and greet world leaders on a global stage, the epitome of what academics call “soft power.”
But over the next few years, Putin might not be basking in any grand moments of national joy and pride after the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) banned Russia from major sporting competitions for four years because of doping non-compliance.
If upheld, the ruling would prevent the country from competing at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, though the door has been left open for clean Russian athletes to compete as neutrals without country affiliation as they did at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang.
The potential ban also means Russia might not be able to host lucrative sporting showpieces.
Last week’s news divided opinion, with Russian authorities criticizing the severity of the ban while others, including the head of the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) Travis Tygart, argued the punishment was too lenient.
However, according to Jonathan Taylor, the head of WADA’s compliance committee, the ban hits Russia exactly where it hurts.
“The reason that Russia loves these events is because they are an expression of national pride and strength,” he told CNN Sport’s Amanda Davies.
“Every official part of the stadium […] is what they take pride in. When they win the medals the anthem and the flag go up. That’s what they care about, that’s when you get the shot of President Putin. You’re not going to get that.”
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev conceded that while doping was an issue in Russian sport, the severity of the ban was due to “anti-Russian hysteria.”
’Politicizing’ the ban
Last week, Putin told a media conference that the decision had been made “based on political considerations.”
“I believe that the main thing, and everyone seems to accept it, is that punishment must be individual and based on the acts committed by an individual, as it has been since the Roman Empire,” Putin said.
“But if they [WADA] take decisions on collective punishment, I think this is a reason to believe that these decisions do not seek to keep sports clean but are based on political considerations, which has nothing to do with the interests of sport and the Olympic Movement.”
On Monday, during his annual news conference, Putin said the decision was “unjust, doesn’t correspond to common sense and the law”.
Such a response is consistent with the way such issues have been handled in the past and, according to author and academic James Rodgers, is an indicator of how just how seriously the Russian leadership might be impacted by the decision.
“This isn’t just about winning competitions, although that is important, it’s about sport as soft power,” Rodgers told CNN, saying the current ban would serve as a “huge blow” to the country which would be unable to use such sporting spectacles for geopolitical gain.
“It comes back to the fact that on an international level, sport is always political to one extent or another.
“I think perhaps the Russian leadership feels that by politicizing it, it will be an easier way of explaining it at home.”
’It was never just sport’
Now a lecturer at City, University of London, Rodgers completed three postings to Moscow as a correspondent between 1991 and 2009 and says sport being used as “soft power” dates way back into Russia’s Soviet past.
“Excellence in the international sporting competition was seen as a way of validating the superiority of the Socialist system over the capitalist system,” Rodgers said.
“It was never just sport, it was always about politics too.”
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russian sport was dealt a major blow as the country’s economy was thrown into relative chaos and it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that the country, under Putin, began reasserting itself on the international sporting stage, notably during recent Olympic Games.
Russia won 24 golds at London 2012 (five have seen been stripped for doping offenses) and, despite a partial ban, it won another 19 gold medals at Rio 2016.
Such success saw the country competing with USA, China and Great Britain at the top of the medal table, demonstrating its prominence as a global power.
The country’s leadership was also a visible presence in the bidding process for the 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2018 FIFA World Cup, turning on a charm offensive to shine a positive light on a country which has been embroiled in political tension across the world.
“One thing about political systems like Russia, when you have this control from the top, is when you want to turn on the charm, you can send down an order […] and it happens,” Rodgers added, saying the country benefited from a lot of good PR at the World Cup in particular.
“This goes way back in Russian history, of putting on a welcoming display to foreign guests to show just what an important international player Russia is.”
Football’s world governing body FIFA has yet to clarify the situation surrounding a neutral “Russian” team at the 2022 World Cup but a potential ban from the tournament will, according to Rodgers, be particularly stinging for both the population and its leadership.
By all accounts, the 2018 World Cup in Russia was as much a win for the host as it was for eventual champion France, and the perfect example of using sport as soft power.
On a domestic level, the population was momentarily distracted by their team’s miraculous march to the quarterfinals, creating a buzz similar to when the team got to the semifinals at the European Championships in 2008.
“Football is big in Russia, particularly in terms of national pride and it was a real moment in the 2008 Euros when Russia did extremely well, better than expected,” Rodgers said.
“Assuming the ban does go ahead, it is a huge blow because Russia is going to be removed from these major sporting events for really quite a long time.”
Russia’s Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) said it will lodge an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) but Taylor says he is “confident” WADA’s decision will be upheld.