This week the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), led by Lord Coe, voted not to lift the suspension on Russian athletes, banning them from competing in the Olympics at Rio.
This decision comes in the wake of jaw-dropping evidence, not only of blind eyes being turned by the Kremlin, state-sponsored complicity in doping amongst Russian athletes, resulting in the initial suspension being imposed in November, but Russia’s continued rejection to comply with measures to fix doping in the sport.
Whilst the ban is entirely justified, being nothing short of state-organised mass cheating, it could well have significant political repercussions. Putin is likely to turn this decision to his advantage by using it to further embellish the Russian people’s perception of being victimised by the rest of the world. Put in conjunction with the equally justified decision to serve a suspended disqualification to the Russian team in the UEFA European Championship for the disgraceful and thuggish behaviour of their ultranationalist fans, there will be many Russians who feel that the wider world does not give Russia the respect and kudos it demands, and that western powers are constantly looking to undermine and embarrass them.
This will add to the feeling of persecution many Russians feel in the face of international sanctions and terror attacks targeting Russians. History tells us when a national group feels excluded and singled out, it often looks to an authoritative, charismatic leader to try to reassert its status and reclaim the people’s national pride. And who better a candidate than Putin?
If anyone doubts the direction Putin will go with this, they might want to look at how he responded to the damaging revelations of the Panama Papers, which brought to light a $2bn dodgy paper trail leading squarely to Russia’s strongarm President. He dismissed it as propaganda designed to hurt him, even going so far as to say that Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s propagandist and spin doctor, was less biased. Russia Today a well-known Kremlin mouthpiece, trotted out this line, as well as accusing Western journalists of unscrupulous reporting.
In one of those strange cases of unintended consequences, what seems like a seemingly straightforward decision in the sporting world, taken for the good of the credibility and integrity of athletics the world over, it could play a darker role in strengthening the hand of one of the world’s most aggressive and authoritarian leaders at home.