State Symbols on Skates: The Politics of Russian Sports During the War in Ukraine

International sports competitions have long served as a theater of nationalistic symbolism. Competitors act as proxies for their countries, carrying their name and reputation onto the field of play. And nowhere is this more evident than in Russia. Since the days of the Soviet Union, the Russian government has valued and promoted international sports victories, with an entire arm of the state dedicated to securing Olympic glory. As Russia’s place in the international community has shifted throughout the 20th and now 21st century, sports have consistently remained a source of national pride, and are still a major project of the state. Russian athletes are nationalist state symbols, and their bans from international competition in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine have only served to generate public outrage and elevate the banned athletes into martyrs.

The Soviet Union and now Russia have long utilized the soft power of sports and have utilized state power to create and maintain advantages in international competition, best exemplified by looking at men’s ice hockey. 

From the first Olympic games to include ice hockey up until 1988, all Olympic Ice Hockey competitors had to be amateurs, not professional athletes, a stance nominally decided by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), but strongly influenced by ties to the eastern bloc. This rule excluded any athletes that played in the National Hockey League (NHL) or their competitor, the World Hockey Alliance, from playing in the Olympics. These two leagues contained the cream-of-the-crop of North American ice hockey players, leaving western countries at a strong disadvantage against Eastern Bloc players. 

Soviet players, on the other hand were ‘state amateurs.’ They played for teams representing a segment of the local economy, like the dominant Red Army team, and were legally considered to be soldiers, students, or working in whatever profession their team represented. In reality, they were actually paid to train and play full-time. A similar system was in place for most other Olympic sports as well.

There was a significant advantage in being a state-sponsored amateur, as is clearly visible in the six gold medals, one silver, and one bronze, that the USSR won in the eight Olympic games before the amateur restrictions were overturned. Other countries had taken note of this double standard, and Canada refused to send an ice hockey team to the Olympics at all in 1972. In 1976, Sweden joined the boycott, and both countries held out until the rule was changed before the 1988 games. 

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, far fewer institutional resources went into securing Russian dominance at the Olympic Games. This resulted in a slow decay of Russian Olympic success, culminating in an 11th place finish in Vancouver in 2010, Russia’s worst placement since the Soviet era. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev demanded that prominent sports ministers “have the courage to step down,” and that if they didn’t, “we will help them.” The results in Vancouver were especially shocking to the Russian government and public considering that only four years later, Sochi was slated to host the Winter Olympics.

The 2014 Sochi Olympics were a major proving ground for Vladimir Putin, who had once again assumed the presidency in 2012. For one, Putin’s image is strongly linked with sports, and his direct lobbying efforts were credited with ultimately securing the Olympic bid. But the event was also meant to showcase Russia’s rise from the ashes of the Soviet Union and Putin’s strength in overcoming the chaos of the collapse to rebuild as a strong international power. And as the Sochi Olympics wrapped up, this goal seemed to have been accomplished. Though Canada managed to retain the men’s hockey title, Russia topped the medal count with 33 in total, including 13 gold medals. But even then, incidences of positive doping tests began to cast a shadow on the event.

In Dec. 2014, a documentary aired on German television in which a string of Russian athletes and an ex-employee of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) alleged a systemic state-sponsored doping program in which the vast majority of professional Russian athletes take part. This documentary spurred a formal investigation from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Nearly a year later in November of 2015, WADA released their report on the situation. The 323-page document detailed a secret ‘shadow’ laboratory that helped cover up positive doping tests, the ordered destruction of over 1,400 samples before WADA investigators could access them, and coercion and threats used against those who did not choose to participate voluntarily. 

The International Association of Athletics, the international governing body of track and field, quickly banned Russian athletes from their competitions, a sanction that still stands today. Russia did compete in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, finishing fourth in the medal count despite the track and field ban. Then, in December 2017, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that Russia would be banned from the upcoming 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, allowing some Russian athletes to compete as ‘Olympic Athletes from Russia’ without the Russian flag or anthem. After new evidence in 2019 revealed further efforts to cover up doping test manipulations and attempts to discredit whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov by fabricating and deleting certain forum messages, the IOC handed down a 4-year Olympic ban against Russia (later reduced to 2). Individual Russian athletes have continued to compete under the ‘Olympic Athletes from Russia’ banner.

But the tone of Olympic sanctions against Russia has changed in the last couple years due to the invasion in Ukraine. Russia’s imperialist streak has been closely intertwined with international sports for much of the last two decades. During the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Russia invaded Georgia. Shortly before the end of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Russian troops began the annexation of Crimea. And then again, only two days after the closing ceremony of the 2022 Beijing Olympics, Russia invaded Ukraine. It is unlikely that these attacks, each based on their own sets of current events, were planned intentionally so that the Olympics might distract from them. Some even argue that the annexation of Crimea was itself a distraction from the corruption scandal exposed at the Sochi Olympics. 

The full-scale invasion in 2022 led to the IOC’s recommendation that Russian and Belarussian athletes be barred from international competition, a ruling that most governing bodies of international sports have followed. But in the time since, many of these stances have crumbled. While most team sports still disallow a team competing under the Russian flag, many individual sports have allowed Russian athletes to return to competition as ‘neutrals,’ again based on an IOC recommendation in March 2023. In July 2023 the IOC announced that Russia and Belarus would not be receiving invitations to the 2024 Paris Olympics, but this does not mean Russian athletes cannot compete.

The narrative threads of doping violations and competition bans due to the war in Ukraine intersect in the story of Kamila Valieva. The figure skater was trained by Russian powerhouse Eteri Tutberidze, a coach widely accused of abuse and fostering toxic and dangerous work environments for the children and young women she trains. Her elite skaters can perform high-scoring quadruple jumps, but they do so at the price of their long-term health, as they are generally forced into retirement before they even hit their 20s. Tutberidze is credited with the recent Russian dominance on the ladies figure skating podium, both at the Olympics and at World Championships. 

Kamila Valieva was 15 years old when she competed in the 2022 Beijing Olympics as the favorite for gold, only a couple months after becoming the Russian National Champion. She became the first woman to land a quadruple jump at the Olympics and led the Russian Olympic Committee to gold in the team event. However, the medal ceremony was delayed, with the IOC citing an emerging legal situation that was soon confirmed to be a positive doping test from a sample taken at the Russian National Championships in December 2021. Valieva tested positive for trimetazidine, a banned heart medication that can be used to improve stamina and recover faster from injury or training. Her legal team states that the substance may originate from trace amounts ingested in a glass of water shared with her grandfather, who took the medication to treat angina.

Valieva’s camp successfully challenged the mandatory provisional suspension that followed her positive test, being allowed to continue practicing and eventually compete in the individual event, though any medal ceremony would have to be delayed until the resolution of her case. But when the day of the event came, Valieva fell several times, left the ice crying, and dropped to fourth in the final event rankings.

Russian media coverage rallied behind Valieva. Former Russian figure skater Irina Slutskaya, a live commentator on the Russia 1 Channel during Valieva’s long program, said, “They broke her. That’s what they wanted, and they achieved it.” Tina Kandelaki, director of TNT, another national Russian channel, compared Valieva to a “Russian soldier, fighting for her country.” Valieva became a nationalist symbol, a martyr sabotaged by the West. This was only solidified when Valieva met Putin and posed for photos during a televised awards ceremony at the Kremlin on her 16th birthday. In describing her skating, Putin said, “Such perfection cannot be achieved dishonestly with the help of additional substances, manipulations. We very well know that these additional substances are not needed in figure skating.”

Russian figure skaters were banned from international skating competitions following the IOC recommendation in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, and remain banned to this day. But Valieva and her peers are still skating, albeit on a national level. At the Russian Test Skates in September 2022, Valieva debuted her new long program for the 2022-2023 season, her first new material since the Olympics. She was dressed in black, and her music was preceded by audio clips from news coverage of her doping scandal. Valieva’s performance was emotional and moving; it ended with her pulling a scrap of fabric over her face, a reference to infamous photos of Valieva hiding her face from reporters’ flashing cameras as she walked the press line, alone, in Beijing.

One of the audio clips featured in Valieva’s program was from a CNN interview with Christine Brennan, who also reported on the new program. Brennan’s voice says, “It was unexpected, it was shocking,” and then fades out. Valieva’s program conveys the immense pressure and heartbreak of her Olympic journey, and casts the western media as its central villains. And while it is not all that hard to find antagonistic coverage (like the Daily Mail headline that referred to Valieva as a “Drug Cheat”), most western coverage did not seek to denigrate Valieva. Brennan even ends her article on Valieva’s new long program by including a more complete version of her CNN quote:

“It was unexpected, it was shocking, it was heartbreaking and you couldn’t help but think you were watching the results of the abuse of a child, right there on that ice, Olympic ice, the world’s greatest stage.” 

Valieva is still only 17 years old, but has become a nationalist celebrity and the face of the perceived injustices perpetrated against the Russian Federation by the West. Her scandal was the newest peak of the Russian doping saga, and the resulting conflict between Russia and the international sports community aligned perfectly with the invasion of Ukraine, allowing Valieva to become a softer, more sympathetic, and most importantly non-military face of the conflict between Russia and the West. 

In the very real pain and anguish of this teenage girl, the Russian public has found a martyr, wronged by the corrupt system. Valieva is viewed similarly in the West, except that instead of the Western media, WADA, and the IOC, it is her coaches, her doctors, and the institutionalized state-sponsored doping program that should take the blame.

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