The ban of the Russian team from the 2016 Rio Paralympics can either be used as a way to unite society around a common cause or as further fuel for cynical propaganda.

President of the Russian Paralympic Committee Vladimir Lukin during a conference in Moscow. Photo: AP

This week the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) confirmed the decision of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) to ban the entire team of Russian athletes from participating in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The decision, as might be expected, resulted in an outcry of pain and anger from Russian society.

It was based on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s independent investigation, which argues that blood test samples of 35 Russian Paralympic athletes contained forbidden performance-enhancing drugs between 2012 and 2015.

The names of the suspected athletes were not revealed, but the inconvenient truth is that because of a guilty few who should have been disqualified from the Paralympics for doping charges, 267 Russian athletes were unfairly banned from the Paralympic Games in Rio.

The fact that they had been preparing for the Paralympics for four years only adds to the feeling of injustice. In this case, the athletes became victims of the collective responsibility principle: if one suffers, then all must suffer.

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The problem is that the life of Russia’s Paralympic athletes already leaves much to be desired. Just as other disabled persons, they have very limited access to different facilities in Russia, living in an unfriendly, inhuman and cynical environment.

However, today there are many attempts to alleviate the hardships of the disabled, provide material support, integrate them into modern society and open access to all amenities that are available to Russia’s middle class, from educational institutions to entertainment venues. Many Russians are reinvigorating their efforts to help the disabled, with the volunteering movement becoming popular in the country.

This is the first reason why society responded to the ban of Russian Paralympic athletes with a great deal of criticism and indignation. But, paradoxically, people pointed their fingers not at the officials who created such an environment and let down the Russian athletes, but rather, at those who banned them — the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which made such a decision for the reasons, based on its investigation.

In fact, this incident became a “gift” (in the most cynical way possible) for the nation’s TV pundits, who are attempting to drive public sentiment in the direction that is convenient to them: against WADA, the IPC, and the West in general.

Not only do such tactics politicize sport and the spirit of the Paralympics and Olympics, but also it has an impact on the people with disabilities themselves. Ridiculously, Russian officials are seen not as those who should be accountable and punished for the ban, but rather as the victims. In contrast, Russian Paralympic athletes are forced to shoulder the implications of the scandal and suffer from unfair punishment.

The impact of the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Games

Secondly, in order to understand what lies behind Russia’s perception of the doping scandal, one should take into account the effect of the 2014 Sochi Paralympic Games. Russian society was emotionally exposed to the problems of these Paralympic athletes and looked at them from a very different angle: People become more aware of their challenges and admired the perseverance of those with limited capabilities.

Until 2014, the problem of the hostile environment surrounding disabled persons had been either taboo or underrepresented. It was the proverbial “elephant in the room” – something that every knew about, but never talked about.

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Yet, after the Sochi Paralympics, this issue got a second wind and the volunteer movement in the country started growing, with many Russians having become emotionally attached to resourceful and strong people with limited capabilities or to their relatives and families.

It is a matter of winning hearts and minds within the country through spreading awareness about their hardships, a sort of domestic “soft power.” That’s why the ban of the Russian athletes in the 2016 Paralympics was met with a great deal of pain and anger.

A brief history of Paralympic sport in Russia

The Paralympic movement started developing in Russia only recently. Despite the fact that the Paralympic Games have been conducted since 1974, Russia first participated in them only in 1988. Moreover, in 1980, after the Moscow Olympic Games, the Soviet Union refused to hold the Paralympics, which finally took place in Holland.

The reluctance to host the Games stems from the fact the Soviet Union just didn’t have a national Paralympic team because it didn’t have equipment to prepare them and the necessary infrastructure — from airports to stadiums — to host foreign Paralympic athletes.

The Soviet Union bragged about its success in providing special education and jobs to people with limited abilities, but at the same time, it failed to provide them with a friendly living environment, not to mention sport facilities to train them. However, sport was essential for these people with different abilities because of therapeutic reasons and the positive impact on their health: It is the easiest way to teach children with limited capabilities the skills of self-reliance. For adults, it is a good way to alleviate psychological problems. 

So, the participation of the Soviet athletes in the 1988 Paralympics was a very important step for the whole Paralympic movement in Russia regardless of the fact that the Soviet team ended up only in 15th place, with two bronze medals.

Soft power of the 2014 Sochi Paralympics

The peak of interest toward Paralympic sport occurred during the 2014 Sochi Paralympics. The Russian Paralympic team consisted of 78 people, including 67 athletes and 11 assistants accompanying the blind athletes. It won 80 medals — 30 gold, 28 silver and 22 bronze, which brought them first place in the general team completion.

The Russian Paralympic team has always been strong and demonstrated good results during the London 2012 Summer Games as well: Russians won 102 medals, including 36 gold, 38 silver and 28 bronze, and took second place in the general team competition.

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The Sochi Paralympics drove interest in the movement, with the preparation of the Russian athletes extensively covered by Russian state-run television channels. The Sochi Paralympics became a significant game-changer, which widely spread awareness about hardships of the people with limited abilities among ordinary people. Russian society started to think of ways of how it could contribute to allaying the difficulties they faced.

For example, since 2013-2014, Russia’s volunteer movement has gotten a big boost, with the amount of volunteers having increased by three million, according to one British nonprofit organization, the Charity Aid Foundation (CAF). Most importantly, the volunteering movement is becoming popular among students and young adults, as well as retirees, who are seeking an opportunity to contribute to society after retirement.

The aspiration to help and make a socially important contribution becomes much more important than the penchant for criticizing the authorities. For example, the well-known Russian journalist, Olga Allenova, who had been critical toward the government, turned her criticism into charity. As she wrote in her column, instead of going to opposition rallies, she now prefers to help children with limited abilities in a boarding school.

What’s next?

The high turbulence in the world and increasing contradictions between Russia, the West and other global powers cannot help affecting the traditional soft power domains, including society, culture, art and sport.

The doping scandal, which affected the Russian Paralympic team, is a good example. The Russian Olympic delegation brought together 389 athletes, but only 264 finally were able to participate and won 58 medals, enough for fourth place in the Olympics.

Despite the relatively good performance of its Olympic team, many Russians still have an uneasy feeling of discomfort. The doping scandals have been haunting Russians since 2014, it was commonplace. But no one expected that Russia’s Paralympic athletes would also be accused of using performance-enhancing drugs and, finally, banned.   

Although it is a very tough and sad lesson, it has a silver lining: It provoked a response from ordinary Russians. It spreads even more awareness about the problems of people with limited abilities and reinvigorates people’s desire to help. Hopefully, people won’t be afraid to talk about the problem anymore.

At the same time, the ban reveals the ugly side of Russian society and politics. It fuels anti-Western sentiment, with politicians, who should be accountable for the doping scandal first, enjoying impunity and using this incident as incendiary fuel for their propaganda messages.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.