When something seems too good to be true, it usually is.
Take the International Olympic Committee’s decision to ban Russia from the Pyeongchang Games. It was an unprecedented punishment for doping, hailed as a victory for both clean athletes and the Olympic movement. That it served up a healthy dose of humiliation to global strongman Vladimir Putin was all the better.
But Putin always wins. Even when it looks like he’s losing.
Putin’s announcement Wednesday that not only would Russia not boycott Pyeongchang as he once threatened, he hoped its athletes would still go and compete as part of the “neutral” team, was more than a little chilling.
This is the man who directed the interference in our presidential election. A man who has actively worked to undermine Ukraine. A man whose fiercest rivals and most vocal critics somehow always seem to wind up dead or behind bars.
But he’s OK with being humbled by the IOC, an organization that until now has shown all the backbone of a jellyfish? Only if the ban allows Putin to save face and meddle on another day.
“Without any doubt we will not declare any kind of blockade,” Putin said in televised remarks after launching his re-election campaign, according to The Associated Press. “We will not block our Olympians from taking part, if any of them wish to take part as individuals.
“They have been preparing for these competitions for their whole careers, and for them it’s very important.”
This is not a matter of Putin admitting defeat. His entire focus is returning Russia to global dominance, and hosting big sporting events and winning lots of medals is one way to show his might.
Putin knows full well that a Russian boycott of Pyeongchang, despite what IOC President Thomas Bach said, would have a massive impact, further diminishing a Winter Games already struggling for relevance.
Russia traditionally sends one of the largest teams to the Winter Olympics and is usually near the top of the medals table. The Russians not being in Pyeongchang would leave an asterisk on all results from the Pyeongchang Games.
Nor is it a matter of Putin acknowledging the Russians did anything wrong.
Despite lifetime bans against Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s sports minister during Sochi, and his deputy, Yuri Nagornykh, who whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov says were the architects of the doping scheme, Russian officials continue to insist there was no state-sponsored program. That hiding the positive tests of dirty athletes, coordinating the swapping of urine samples and getting Russia’s state security service to help out were all the work of one rogue actor, Rodchenkov.
Buy that, and I have a dacha in Siberia to sell you.
The IOC has gone along with that charade, not requiring Russian acknowledgement of wrongdoing as a condition of its athletes competing. Bach said Russian Olympic Committee president Alexander Zhukov has apologized to the IOC, but Bach declines to say for what.
Which can mean only one thing: Whether by naivete or expediency, the IOC got played by Putin and it will only embolden him in the future. That some of Putin’s favorite Olympic champions – Yelena Isinbaeva and Evgeni Plushenko – were quick to encourage Russian athletes to go to Pyeongchang only furthers the suspicion.
Much is being made of the fact that the Russian anthem won’t be played and the flag won’t be seen during the Games. But unlike other neutral athletes, who are designated as “Independent Olympic Athletes,” the Russians will be known as “Olympic Athletes from Russia.” Their uniforms will include OAR, though it’s not known yet if it will be just the acronym or spelled out.
So not exactly neutral then.
And if the Russians behave themselves in Pyeongchang, Bach said he’d be willing to let them march with their flag in the closing ceremony. That’s right. The lasting image of the Pyeongchang Games will not be of the IOC standing up for clean athletes but rather Russia emerging triumphant from its brief exile.
What perfect timing, too! Less than four months later, Russia plays host to the World Cup, a global sporting event considered far more important by much of the world. The head of the organizing committee? None other than Vitaly Mutko.
FIFA wasted little time Tuesday saying it wasn’t concerned about the IOC’s sanctions against Russia, Mutko’s lifetime ban included.
“The decision has no impact on the preparations for the 2018 FIFA World Cup as we continue to work to deliver the best possible event,” FIFA said in a statement Tuesday.
So there you have it. Whatever embarrassment Russia suffers over its Pyeongchang “ban” will be short-lived.
The IOC can strip Russia of its flag, its anthem and all those medals its tainted athletes won in Sochi. But Putin plays the long game and, in that, he is the undisputed winner.
By Nancy Armour
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.