Russian sport right now has a struggle for power. A struggle between legitimate sport and sport controlled by President Putin.
With a Russian-hosted World Cup in June, recent news of further Russian controversies should have FIFA doing more.
Firstly, let’s look at the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), Russia’s premier ice hockey league. The team Vladimir Putin supports, SKA St Petersburg, are reportedly winning Russia’s Premier Ice Hockey League by default.
This can be paired with claims by a whistle-blower that Russia has already doped at a previous football World Cup. A Russian-hosted World Cup this summer, much like in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, could present a much greater threat to the legitimacy of the tournament.
Putin will be desperate for at least a knockout phase performance from Russia’s footballers in an election year, despite their current lowly world ranking of 61st.
Putin’s team win gold
At this year’s Winter Games, a team of Russians competing as ‘Olympic Athletes from Russia’ won ice hockey gold in Pyeongchang. The OAR tag had to be used because of Russia’s ongoing doping suspension from the Olympics, with only clean individual athletes allowed to take part.
It just so happens that many of those gold medal-winning OAR players also play for SKA St Petersburg.
Russian sports writer Slava Malamud posted a thread on Twitter that went viral within the North American ice hockey community.
Malamud expressed his distaste for the state of Russian domestic hockey and Putin’s grip on the league.
“SKA is allowed to ignore the salary cap, its payroll is six times that of an average team, it has dibs on every star who considers the KHL. Most of its players are rabid Putin supporters who took part in his campaign rally last week. I repeat: SKA must win. It’s not an option.”
The KHL league has offered an official explanation that for many within the Russian sporting media that doesn’t exactly allay suspicions, claims Malamud.
‘Everyone in Russia knows what’s going on. The fans, the officials, the media’
It goes like this: ‘Allowing all the best players to concentrate in one team has created unique chemistry that transitioned seamlessly to the Olympic squad. Making the KHL season easy for them has safeguarded against injuries and bad morale. This is why we won the gold.’
“Everyone in Russia knows what’s going on. The fans, the officials, the media. It’s out in the open. And the people who have made it happen (all KHL bosses are Putin’s close friends) have already announced that the system has proven effective and should continue.”
Given what Malamud says, it would appear that Putin remains unconcerned by any sanctions or investigations that continue within the international governing bodies of sport.
Flying too close to the sun
Even more timely is the recent victory of Icarus at the Oscars. Directed by Bryan Fogel, the documentary inadvertently charted the fall from grace of the head of Russia’s anti-doping lab, Grigory Rodchenkov. The film also covers his subsequent flight to the United States, where he testified under a newly-assumed name and identity.
Though it may not sound like fun having Putin and his special agents allegedly hunting you down, Rodchenkov has been the lucky one so far.
Two former colleagues died in mysterious circumstances following the revelations of the fleeing Russian.
Although ice hockey and hootball are not directly connected, they are inexplicably connected by Rodchenkov.
The former Russian lab director who now has taken asylum in the US, claimed he was ordered to apply the same kind of doping craft to all Russian sport.
Vitaliy Mutko, who was Russian sport minister during Sochi, was promoted to deputy prime minister after he and Putin were implicated by Rodchenkov.
Just a couple of weeks ago Rodchenkov told Associated Press: “Russian footballers were immune from doping-control actions or sanctions.”
He also told AP that while Mutko was president of the Russian Football Union he was ordered to provide “protection for Russian footballers.”
Rodchenkov claimed: “He [Mutko] told me directly to ‘avoid any scandal by hiding positive results’ and ‘doping would be handled internally,’ meaning that those doping irresponsibly or without protocols could be disciplined or reported.”
Give ’em enough dope
Rodchenkov moved to the US two years ago and the state-sponsored doping began to be uncovered in 2014. Yet, only in the past few months has FIFA reportedly attempted to gather evidence from his claims.
‘Two former colleagues of Rodchenkov died in mysterious circumstances’
Though Mutko was subsequently banned from the Olympics due to his involvement in Sochi, he is yet to face any footballing sanctions. With Mutko recently departing from his roles as head of Russia’s Football Federation and the World Cup organising committee, it will be interesting to see how FIFA responds.
There are 34 historical cases of doping identified by the World Anti-Doping Agency, which are said to include members of the 2014 Russian World Cup squad.
It has been a sluggish investigation by FIFA. You would have assumed that the federation, recently embroiled in corruption itself, would be making larger efforts to resolve such a situation.
Gianni Infantino and his media team tried to pre-empt criticism with a comment: “If there was a big issue regarding Russian players who would be doped, we would by now already know it.”
However from the evidence gathered, it appears many may have known for some time.
The chances of this being a deliberate delay could be high given the World Cup time-frame. Saudia Arabia kick off against the hosts at the beginning of June and any delay could be disastrous.
FIFA responded to these allegations in a bizarre question and answer session in which they both asked and answered their own questions.
“There has not been any delay in our investigation,” stated FIFA. “Since the very first moment, FIFA has undertaken comprehensive action to determine whether football players were involved.
“We have been regularly informing and exchanging information with WADA about our progress and they have agreed to our approach. It is obviously in FIFA’s interest that the investigations are finalised as soon as possible.”
When asked about Infantino’s comment on Russian players, Rodchenkov told Associated Press: “This is more burying heads in the sand.”
A slap on the wrist by the IOC (International Olympic Committee) and a turbulent investigation from FIFA ahead; there is still yet to be a proper and effective response to all of Russia’s sporting misdemeanours.
@SlavaMalamud on Twitter for more on Russian Ice Hockey
Vladimir Putin posters photo by Antjeverena via Flickr Creative Commons under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)