Aurel Braun is a professor of international relations and political science at the University of Toronto and a Center Associate at the Davis Center, Harvard University. His forthcoming book is Russia, the West and Arctic Security.
Despite escaping a blanket ban from the Rio Olympics, Russia has suffered a grievous blow, with key implications. With the Russian track and field team already banned, the International Olympic Committee, appalled by the scope of doping, declared all Russian athletes tainted and placed the onus on them to persuade individual international sports federations of their innocence if they were to participate in Rio – quite a new day.
In the past, totalitarian states, including the Soviet Union, viewed international sports, and particularly the Olympics – to paraphrase Clausewitz – as politics by another means.
That is, international sports victories were meant to boost national pride, enhance the legitimacy of the regime domestically, and preen or even intimidate internationally.
Russia of course is not the Soviet Union. The former has many more freedoms but, particularly in the past few years, the Putin administration has relentlessly shrunk the zone of democracy and has become more assertive internationally.
To many, the regime is essentially a vast, repressive kleptocracy that has sought legitimacy by trying to give people some "bread" and lots of "circuses." What the Putin regime has not done is to transform Russia into a modern, competitive state with a government that is responsive to the people's aspirations.
In fact, Russia may be facing a growing political-legitimacy crisis. The tacit social contract between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the people – wherein his regime would provide a continually improving standard of living, even if at a much lower level than in Western Europe, in exchange for political compliance – has begun to fall apart.
Russia's economy, unidimensional, uncompetitive and overwhelmingly reliant on energy exports, contracted by 3.7 per cent last year. It is stalling further this year and is experiencing both a drawing down of reserves and a massive outflow of funds. The trickle-down economy, where Mr. Putin's oligarchs enormously enriched themselves but where there were still enough "leftovers" to provide "bread" for the population, is not working. It is disappearing as a source of legitimacy.
Foreign-policy assertiveness, including the illegal annexation of Crimea and tactical wins in Syria, have provided the Putin government with some means of rallying national support, but ultra-nationalism is usually subject to its own laws of diminishing returns, as well as being highly risky.
Sport victories, consequently, were a good way to create the "circuses" that generate popular support, and the Putin government has invested enormous resources. The Sochi Olympics were by far the most expensive Olympic Games in history. It should also not have been surprising that Russian athletes were pushed to win by any means possible.
To be sure, Russian athletes are not the first or only ones to cheat. What is different here, is the scale, brazenness and the full involvement of the state. It was not only the track and field athletes who prevailed through "better chemistry" but as Richard McLaren's report shows, the entire state apparatus – from the Ministry of Sports to the Federal Security Service (FSB) – was mobilized to create a vast program of cheating that permeated all Russian sports.
Partially banning and putting in doubt the participation of many more athletes is consequently a blow both to the Putin administration's attempt to gain political legitimacy, or at least the populace's acquiescence through sport "circuses," and to the country's international prestige.
The Putin government has vigorously protested against even the banning of the track team, claiming that it was a result of anti-Russian geopolitics, particularly fuelled by the United States. This is out of the toolbox of Soviet propaganda where the people were told that they were encircled and embattled, with only the government able to protect them. It is an attempt at more "magic" to deal with difficult problems rather than the hard work to find solutions.
The IOC condemnation is also a vital reality check. The Guardian argued that this is a schism between the honest and the dishonest. It is much more than that, for it sends the message to the Putin government that whether in politics, economics or sports, ultimately "magic" is no substitute for real, hard-earned achievement.