Russia: Same old story

Olympic behavior confirms Moscow’s enduring arrogance The 2002 Winter Olympics are now history. As has been widely written, they will go down as being among the most successful Games ever, despite a judging scandal in the pairs figure skating competition. As is known, the Canadian pair – which clearly skated better – initially received the silver medal, while the Russians traditionally” won their gold, despite falling and clearly coming up short. But all traditions must come to an end. Once the fact that the competition was rigged came to light, the tradition of Russian supremacy in pairs figure skating ended, albeit via the new precedent of the awarding of a second gold medal (within the same competition) to the Canadians.

What now remains to be seen is whether the human tradition of corruption, accepting bribes, or at the very least deal-making (the basis for the judge’s decision in this case) will ever see its end. Although I don’t have a poll, I believe that most Central Europeans, as well as Westerners, view Russia with mixed feelings. They are based on Russia’s mixed past and present, which includes an array of conflicting details: a society that has never known democracy, Sputnik, the Cold War, Vladimir Putin, pervasive alcoholism, heroism and stoicism, and, yes – dominance in figure skating. For its part, Russia and Russians have traits that come from this past – determination, a paranoid preoccupation of constantly being under siege, and a love for drama, bigness and grandiosity, whether it’s in personal taste (Tchaikovsky, say) or politics. Back to figure skating and the Olympics.

Far more significant than the end of the tradition of Russian figure-skating dominance was that Russia missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create an unprecedented positive image to the rest of the world. Imagine if, as they stood on the victory stand, the Russian pair had taken off their gold medals and handed them to the Canadians beside them. Apart for creating immediate confusion over which national anthem to play, the effect would have been electric. Regardless of who really was better, it would be a gesture of magnanimous proportions. It would have sent the following message: The image of a Cold War opponent is gone; Russia now plays fair, even when issues of national pride and identity (such as figure skating) are at stake.Such a gesture would have immediate ramifications. Giving something away is always far more important and significant than accepting. Not just in sports, but in diplomacy.

Sport, after all, is a mirror of life, and has a powerful influence on national and international image. A gesture would have suggested that Russia is now a more accommodating partner, and a truly graceful one.But Russia has never learned that, and never will. Instead, the figure skating pair was later seen on television with their coach, steadfast in their claim that that they were better.What should Putin have done? As he watched the marks go up, he should have grabbed that red phone next to him and told his athletes: Give them that damned medal now!” Instead, Russian Olympic officials responded to a decision that the gold medal be shared by later demanding that a competitor in the individual women’s figure skating be elevated from second place to first. Putin wailed that the whole Olympics were Western-influenced, aggressively defending both his skaters and Russian athletes accused of doping (two cross-country skiers were stripped of their medals).Would other athletes or other countries have acted differently? Yes, I firmly believe so. And that is why, Mr. Putin and Russia, we view you the way we do. 

– The writer is a Prague neurologist and the publisher of The New Presence and Pritomnost magazines. 


The Prague Post13.3.2002

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