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What Russia’s Ministry of Doping Tells Us About Putin

Vitaly Mutko may be responsible for one of the worst scandals in Olympic history. Here’s why he still has his job — for now.

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Vitaly Mutko’s third Olympic Games as Russia’s sports minister wasn’t going as planned. Halfway through the 2012 London Summer Olympics, the Russian national team had only managed to rack up a meager three gold medals. The team’s showing was equally dismal in the total medal count; trailing behind North Korea and Kazakhstan, Russia finished in 10th place. Back at home, the team’s poor performance had prompted calls for Mutko’s resignation in the Russian press. Already unpopular, the sports minister’s regard had been flagging long before the 2012 Games.

Despite a respectable third-place showing during the Beijing Games in 2008, the Russian squad under-performed in Vancouver in 2010, winning only three gold medals and finishing in 11th place in Russia’s worst Olympic performance ever. On top of that, the public was still raw over the scandal Mutko set off after an audit — launched by then-President Dmitry Medvedev and conducted by the Russian parliament — found that he had abused government funds for personal spending: He charged 97 breakfasts during his 20-day stay in Canada and spent 12 times his official limit for hotel expenses, running up a bill of $32,400 dollars — nearly twice the average annual income of a Russian taxpayer.

Luckily for Mutko, the Russian team would go on to rebound in London, finishing in fourth place overall when the games came to a close in August 2012. When the Black Sea resort of Sochi was transformed into the site of the Winter Olympics in February 2014, the Russian team topped the standings with 33 medals, 13 of which were gold; Mutko was able to stand strong on a home victory for his country.

But it was a short-lived victory for Mutko and for Russia. In November 2015, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) released a damning 325-page report in which it concluded that Russia had operated a huge state-sponsored doping program for its track and field athletes. The findings were devastating for Russian athletics, and while Mutko was not directly named in the report, Dick Pound, a former WADA president and the lead investigator, directly named the sports minister in a press conference, saying that “it was impossible for [Mutko] not to be aware of it. And if he’s aware of it, he’s complicit in it.” The doping allegations against Russia were amplified further after Grigory Rodchenkov, the longtime director of Russia’s anti-doping lab, told the New York Times in May that Russian officials, with the help of the country’s security agencies, ran one of the most elaborate state-sponsored doping programs in sports history.

The Kremlin and Mutko have denied that the sports ministry was involved in doping, instead chalking the scandal up to rotten apples within Russian athletics and double standards inherent in international anti-doping framework. “Nobody blamed us when we were 11th or 12th in the world,” Mutko told the New York Times in July. “Our problem is not the problem of Russia but of the whole system of doping control.”

Yet, despite overseeing Russia’s greatest international sporting disgrace — more than 110 Russian athletes, including the entire track and field team, have been barred from the Rio Olympics — the sports minister is not going anywhere. Because while Mutko may have sullied his country’s global athletic reputation, even throwing international rules by the wayside, he did so in the name of winning glory for Russia. In an increasingly politicized sporting atmosphere, with Russian media framing the scandal as a standoff between Moscow and the West, Mutko may have found the cover he needs to keep his post.

“According to Putin’s inner circle, all [the doping] investigations are orchestrated against Putin himself,” Mikhail Zygar, the founding editor-in-chief of the Russian television channel TV Dozhd and author of All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin, told Foreign Policy. “They really think that there is some close coordination between the White House, State Department, Olympic Committee, and FIFA. They view it as one force conspiring against them.”

For the Kremlin, sports have become more than a pastime, functioning instead as a valuable political tool during Putin’s reign. “Since the beginning of the Putin years, sport has been a huge part of Russian propaganda,” said Zygar. Under his first two terms as president, sports like hockey and soccer received major financial backing from Russian oligarchs and Gazprom, the state-owned gas giant. State TV channels often showed the president displaying his strength and vitality through his hockey prowess, judo skills, and mastery on the ski slopes. During the Sochi Olympics, Putin took the power of sport events even further, by directly linking athletic glory to the country’s past humiliations, saying in a January 2014 interview that the games were meant to “strengthen the morale of the nation” after the collapse of the Soviet Union and long-running war in the North Caucasus. The Kremlin spared no expense and is believed to have spent more than $50 billion on the event.

Throughout the games, Mutko did his best to echo the official line, on security, the country’s controversial law against so-called LGBT propaganda, and the success of the Olympics, while not stealing the spotlight from the Russian president. “It was a prestige project for Putin, it was mostly ran from the office of the president; [Mutko] was just a mouthpiece for the games,” Arnold van Bruggen, co-creator of the Sochi Project, a seven-year multimedia research project on the Russian Olympics, told FP. “Sochi showed how the [Russian] system functions; it’s a vertical state where only the big boss can make something happen.”

A week after the Sochi Olympics, Putin praised Mutko in a television interview for making “a significant contribution to our athletic achievements.” For the 57-year-old Mutko, the sporting success of the games solidified his standing in the Russian elite and helped to prove his loyalty and reliability to Putin. Still, this never translated into widespread popularity for the sports minister. As a politician, Mutko cultivated the aura of the Russian everyman, wearing the national tracksuit to public events and even sharing a beer with soccer players in the locker room. And while those who have worked with him contend that Mutko is a shrewd behind-the-scenes operator, he is widely seen as aloof by the public and has a long track record of scandals throughout Russian sports.

Mutko earned his political stripes alongside Putin in the government of St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak in the early 1990s and the two men even worked together to organize the first international sports event held in Russia after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the 1994 Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg. When Sobchak lost his job in 1996, Mutko left city government and took over as president of FC Zenit Saint Petersburg, where he turned the soccer club into a winning franchise, but also faced accusations of corruption and match-fixing. From there, he climbed the ranks of Russian soccer, founding the Russian Premier League in 2001 and becoming president of the Russian Football Union in 2005. Before transitioning as prime minister in 2008, Putin promoted Mutko to sports minister, cementing his old ally’s hold over sports in Russia.

Throughout the doping scandal, Mutko has followed the president’s lead, playing the good cop — in an attempt to salvage Russia’s image abroad — to Putin’s bad cop, who has framed the doping scandal to domestic audiences as a conspiracy against Russia. After initially brushing aside the doping allegations as politics, Mutko changed his tone when dealing with international media. In an op-ed this May for the U.K.’s Sunday Times newspaper, Mutko apologized for doping in the past and admitted that “serious mistakes” had been made, and offered assurances that the system had been reformed and that Russian athletes deserved to compete in Rio.

In contrast, Putin has continued his refrain, suggesting that the allegations were politically motivated and meant to undermine his country’s standing in the world. In a recent meeting with Russia’s Olympic team before they shipped off to Rio, the president said that the country’s athletes were victims of a targeted campaign that uses double standards and collective punishment. In response, two-time Olympian Yelena Isinbayeva, who is banned from the Rio Olympics as a member of the track and field team despite never testing positive for performance enhancing substances, said “we must punish everyone involved in this,” prior to thanking the president and expressing her love for him.

The Kremlin deployed similar tactics when FIFA was engulfed in a massive corruption probe in 2015 investigating bribery allegations connected to Sepp Blatter — the organization’s president at the time — and Russia’s successful World Cup bid (which was secured by Mutko). Both Putin and the sports minister jumped to Blatter’s defense and accused the U.S. government of overstepping its bounds after the Justice Department announced it was looking into the matter. Following his suspension, however, Blatter said that the decision on where to hold the 2018 World Cup was agreed before the voting began.

This strategy of painting sporting scandals in geopolitical terms appears to have fallen flat abroad but remains effective domestically, says Andrei Kolesnikov, senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “This is the sole option of political behavior for the Kremlin,” Kolesnikov told FP. “Putin’s Russians must be victorious everywhere; it was one of the reasons for using doping — victory by any means.”

After more than a decade of strained relations with the United States and the West, (tensions that were only amplified by the annexation of Crimea, the war in eastern Ukraine, and Western sanctions against Russia), the Kremlin has used wounded pride to its own advantage at home. On the flip side of that same propaganda coin, much like the Sochi Olympics, Russia is hoping to use the 2018 World Cup to showcase itself to the world as a major power hosting a world-class event. Moscow is already looking for ways to end its post-Ukraine crisis isolation on its own terms — mainly by courting counterterrorism cooperation with the West in Syria. Moreover, for the first time during Putin’s tenure, Russians are experiencing a significant decline in living standards; the tournament would be a welcome cause for national sporting pride.

Still, Mutko isn’t out of the frayed spotlight yet, with Russia’s upcoming World Cup also being tainted by a trail that connects back to the embattled sports minister. A WADA report by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren released in July alleged that Mutko was involved in covering up a Russian soccer player’s positive doping test, although Mutko was not directly implicated. WADA President Craig Reedie added that RUSADA, Russia’s suspended anti-doping agency, will not be permitted to restart its work so long as Mutko remains in his post. In response to the report, FIFA’s ethics committee announced that it would request WADA’s information to launch an investigation into Mutko’s potential involvement in doping. If implicated, Mutko, who is Russia’s top official at FIFA and is also the head of the local organizing committee for the 2018 World Cup, could bring further scandal to the tournament.

With the success of Sochi now sullied in the doping scandal, Putin may be willing to cut his loses over the Rio Olympics to preserve the future of the coveted soccer tournament. Already, Putin has suspended Mutko’s deputy and an advisor, who were both named in the WADA report, with their permanent removal pending a separate Russian investigation. Such measures are rare for Putin who is resistant to any form of public pressure, often waiting for the spotlight to have subsided around a scandal before reacting. Many observers like Zygar and Kolesnikov contend that Mutko, still a loyal aide of Putin’s, will eventually be pushed aside — likely in a symbolic punitive display — but that it will still be important for Putin to avoid looking like he’s caved in to Western pressure.

“Putin doesn’t want to make Mutko into a scapegoat because everyone knows that the system actually flows through him,” said Zygar. “But I don’t think that he will wait until FIFA or someone else decides to drag Russia’s reputation through the dirt again.”

Photo credit: PASCAL LE SEGRETAIN/Getty Images

Reid Standish is a journalist based in Helsinki, Finland. He was formerly an associate editor at Foreign Policy. @reidstan

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