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How the Kremlin Tried to Rig the Olympics, and Failed

When the Russian national hockey team lost to Canada, seven to three, in the hockey quarterfinals of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, forward Alexander Ovechkin knew it would be bad. “Now the dirt will pour down on us,” he said at the time. The dirt poured down from the very top. “Because of disgraceful performance of our team I’m afraid to approach TV-set,” tweetedDmitry Rogozin, then Russia’s ambassador to nato. “How on earth could we have blown it so disastrously in hockey?” Then-president Dmitry Medvedev canceled his trip to the closing ceremony, and the Siberian city of Tomsk held a moment of silence. I was living in Russia at the time, and I had never seen any country take the Olympics so seriously. Everyone I spoke to was shocked and utterly humiliated: It was the first time in Olympic history that Russia didn’t even get to compete for a medal in hockey.

But other Olympic humiliations abounded. Russia failed in that other sacred Russian winter sport, figure skating. The Russian skating pair that was favored to do well in the Olympics had to change their routine, called “Aboriginal Dance,” after it was decried as racist. Yevgeny Plushchenko took only silver and was so upset about it that Vladimir Putin (then the prime minister) had to publicly comfort him, saying, “Your silver is worth gold.” It had to be, because Russia didn’t win that many golds in Vancouver. Even the Netherlands won more gold medals. Russian athletes only brought home 15 medals total, finishing 11th in the medal count, despite being a country that was long seen as an Olympic juggernaut where winter takes up more than half the year.

Shamed and pilloried, the head of the Russian Olympic Committee resigned, and Russian leadership spoke of serious reform. “The place we got in Vancouver is not worthy of our country,” said Vitaly Mutko, the sports minister at the time and a friend of Putin. “We have to do everything we can to restore our leadership in world sports.” He promised to take “personal control” over the preparations for the Sochi Olympics, where the stakes would be far higher and which were just four years away. What if Russian athletes flopped on their home turf? It was a nightmare scenario.

This is how we got to Tuesday’s ban of the entire Russian team and various Russian officials, including Mutko, from the 2018 Winter Olympics, just two months before the opening ceremony, in South Korea. There is a straight line from Vancouver to Pyeongchang, with a sordid stop in Sochi.

Read more at The Atlantic. 

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