There’s a toast Russians offer when something looks too good to be true.
Roughly translated, it goes: “I’d like to drink honey with your lips.”
It’s easy to imagine glasses being clinked at the Kremlin two nights ago, when the International Olympic Committee announced its decision to ban Russia in name only - while sparing many of its athletes - from the upcoming Pyeongchang Olympics. A day later, President Vladimir Putin half-heartedly denounced the ban as “politically motivated,” gave cover to all those athletes who “wish to take part as individuals,” but left it at that.
Like the rest of his countrymen, he knows a sweet deal when he sees one.
For nearly a decade now, the Russians have been running a doping operation that would make El Chapo jealous. The scheme swept up more than 1,000 athletes and stretched from lowly lab technicians in Sochi swapping out tainted urine samples for clean ones on up to the highest reaches of the national sports ministries.
Yet after confirming many of the sordid details, this is how the IOC punished the most audacious state-sponsored cheaters since the heyday of the former East Germany: “No flag for you! No anthem, either. Otherwise, make yourself right at home.”
Granted, the Russian Olympic Committee was suspended and ordered to pay $15 million to help fund future anti-doping efforts. And while it’s too early for an accurate headcount of how many Russian athletes will pass muster with the newly-formed IOC doping panel, or how many might choose to sit out in protest, several of that nation’s dirtiest and most successful sports teams - cross-country skiing and biathlon come to mind - could be decimated. Russians were projected to contend for medals in a third or more of the 15 sports.
For purposes of comparison, there were 232 Russian athletes at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. As of today, 25 of those who won or shared in 11 medals there have had them repossessed and were told not to bother showing up in Korea. Ditto for any other competitors with previous doping violations.
Those that do show up won’t get to march under the Russian flag or hear their anthem played during opening ceremonies or on any medal stands. But they might by the time the closing ceremonies roll around (more on that in a moment). They won’t get to wear their official uniforms, either. But the ones they’ll be provided will be marked “OAR,” which stands for - you guessed it - “Olympic Athletes from Russia.”
It’s a better deal than Kuwaiti athletes got at the 2016 Rio Games, or any of the other athletes forced to compete as “neutrals” in the past. In any case, they won’t be hard to recognize.
“Their rivals will know that they are from Russia - it will simply be a slightly different interpretation,” Russian IOC member Yelena Isinbayeva, a former Olympian, told Rossiya 24 news channel.
Isinbayeva said the “OAR” uniform marking might seem like a small concession, but it showed the Russians are still capable of pushing back. She called it a big reason why she urged the nation’s athletes not to consider boycotting the games. It wasn’t the only break the IOC cut the Russians, either.
Tucked into Tuesday’s announcement was a paragraph giving the IOC the option to lift the suspension of the Russian Olympic Committee up until the moment the closing ceremony begins. More than a few rubles have been bet that the Russian flag (and maybe some new uniforms proudly shouting “Rossiya”) will be on the scene before the end of the Olympics.
To be fair, the IOC was being pragmatic. Russia is plenty capable of throwing its weight around the Olympic movement. One example: With the National Hockey League electing not to participate, the Russians could let even more air out of the tournament by barring players from its domestic Kontinental Hockey League, considered the second-best circuit in the world, from playing.
The Russians will almost surely not leave Pyeongchang empty-handed.
Putin never went to a Super Bowl, but he’s got a championship ring courtesy of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who handed it over during a Kremlin visit in 2005 for what he thought was a brief inspection - and never saw it again. Russia, likewise, won’t be at the Winter Olympics - not officially, anyway - but chances are good that at least a medal or two from the games will find its way into the same display case where Putin shows off “gifts” from his friends around the world.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for the Associated Press
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