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28 July 2021updated 09 Sep 2021 8:20am

“We will ROC you”: the uneasy compromise of Russian athletes at the Tokyo Olympics

Russia is technically banned from international sporting competitions after the state-sponsored doping scandal – but you wouldn’t know it.

By Ido Vock

“We will ROC you. From Russia with love.” The video posted by the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova to cheer on “Russian Olympic Committee” (ROC) athletes sent to the Tokyo Olympic Games offers little space for ambiguity: the Russian government is claiming the team currently placing fourth in the medals table as Russia’s.

Officially, they aren’t. There are 330 Russian athletes competing in Tokyo under the ROC banner because the Russian team was banned in 2019 from participating in all international sport, after Russia was found to have participated in state-sponsored doping. The international Court of Arbitration for Sport at the time found that the Russian Anti-Doping Agency had failed to provide legitimate drug test data upon request. The ban, initially for four years, was last year on appeal reduced to two years. It will also apply to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Because the ban was merely on the team rather than the athletes, however, Russian sportspeople are still allowed to compete, as long as it is under the ROC banner, with certain conditions attached. The ROC team is banned from displaying Russia’s national symbols: the flag they compete under is not the Russian tricolour but the ROC’s. And instead of the Russian anthem, an extract from a Tchaikovsky concerto is played for the ROC team. (The ROC had originally asked for “Katyusha”, a popular Second World War-era Soviet folk song, which was rejected by the International Olympic Committee.)

Some iconography is even more ambiguous. Although the ruling demands ROC competitors present themselves as “neutral athletes”, they are allowed to use the word “Russia” with equal prominence. They are also permitted to display the colours of the Russian flag on their uniforms following Russia’s successful appeal last year.

“You don’t really need to have a strong imagination… our national flag can be seen really, really obviously,” the team’s president Stanislav Pozdnyakov said when the uniform was unveiled at a Moscow fashion show in April. In addition, the Russian national colours can be seen on the ROC’s logo.

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Perhaps most bafflingly of all, although the abbreviation ROC stands for “Russian Olympic Committee”, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has said it cannot be used in full at the Olympics so as to avoid pronouncing the word “Russian”. The rule has been widely and repeatedly broken, however, with some ROC athletes sometimes being introduced under the full name of their team by official announcements.

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The uneasy compromise, which has effectively seen Russia compete in all but name, is illustrative of the difficulty international organisations – sporting as well as political – have in sanctioning Russia for transgressions of rules and norms, argued James Nixey, the director of the Russia-Eurasia programme at the Chatham House think tank. “The whole thing’s a massive fudge. The IOC couldn’t do nothing in the face of the overwhelming evidence of state-sponsored doping after 2014. At the same time, it was simply not strong enough to outright ban Russia from competing,” he said.

Some of the ROC athletes have been clear about how they are complying with the IOC’s rules. “It’s insulting… but as they say, if the flag is not allowed, we ourselves will be the flag,” Alena Tiron, an ROC rugby captain, said of not being permitted to raise her national banner. “We know which country we stand for.” 

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