The Cable

Russian Track and Field Team Banned from Summer Olympics

Putin won't be able to use his track team to project power in Rio this summer.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin walks near a new Russian fighter jet Sukhoi T-50, after its flight in Zhukovksy, outside Moscow on June 17, 2010. AFP PHOTO / RIA NOVOSTI / POOL / ALEXEY DRUZHININ (Photo credit should read ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin walks near a new Russian fighter jet Sukhoi T-50, after its flight in Zhukovksy, outside Moscow on June 17, 2010. AFP PHOTO / RIA NOVOSTI / POOL / ALEXEY DRUZHININ (Photo credit should read ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has one less venue to flex his muscles.

In what appears to be an unprecedented move, Russia’s track and field team has been suspended from the upcoming Summer Olympics in Brazil due to evidence of a far-reaching doping conspiracy. The IAAF, the global governing body for track and field, made the decision Friday after a World Anti-Doping Agency report accused the nation of a sophisticated government-run doping program. This prompted a U.S. Justice Department investigation into illicit drugging among Russian athletes.

The International Olympic Committee has the ultimate decision on whether to ban Russian track athletes from the Olympics, and that body is set to meet Tuesday. It would be rare if they overturned the decision; traditionally, they have allowed governing bodies for individual sports to allocate punishment for doping.

If the ban stands, it would be a major blow to Putin, who has used sports in recent years to show what he portrays as his country’s return to its rightful preeminence on the world stage. Russia won the most medals in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. It’s set to host the World Cup in 2018, even though the awarding of the tournament has been hounded by accusations of bribery. Russian football hooligans, known as ultras, have been terrorizing the ongoing Euro 2016 football tournament in France to such a degree that UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, has threatened to kick the national team out of the tournament.

The ongoing doping scandal could undermine Russia’s entire athletic program. According to reports, one-third of Russia’s 33 medals at the 2014 Winter Olympics were awarded to athletes suspected of doping. The U.S. Justice Department has opened an investigation into Russian government officials, athletes, coaches, anti-doping authorities, and anyone else who benefited from drugs banned by world sports authorities.

In a statement released Friday, the Russian Ministry of Sport bashed the decision.

“Clean athletes’ dreams are being destroyed because of the reprehensible behavior of other athletes and officials. They have sacrificed years of their lives striving to compete at the Olympics and now that sacrifice looks likely to be wasted,” the statement said.

Russian track and field athletes haven’t been competing since the World Anti-Doping Agency accused the country seven months ago of an elaborate doping scheme, meant to cheat drug tests. For months, Russian officials have been lobbying for their athletes to compete in the Summer Olympics. On Friday, that push appears to have ended in defeat — even though Moscow made an emotional last-ditch appeal for another chance.

“We now appeal to the members of the International Olympic Committee to not only consider the impact that our athletes’ exclusion will have on their dreams and the people of Russia, but also that the Olympics themselves will be diminished by their absence,” said the statement. “The games are supposed to be a source of unity, and we hope that they remain as a way of bringing people together.”

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis

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