TOKYO — Four guys from Russia, wearing Russian colors, climbed up a podium to receive gold medals and listen to a Russian song right after a few onlookers chanted, “Rus-SEE-a, Rus-SEE-a,” the forever Russian chant.
Russia, however, didn’t win the men’s gymnastics team event here Monday. Nope. Not at all. Russia? Never heard of it. Russia isn’t here.
Or something like that.
The International Olympic Committee officially banned the country from being here due to blatant doping scandals that date back to the 2014 Sochi Olympics. The IOC generally has the moral compass of a KGB hit man, but even it couldn’t ignore this.
To recap just some of the story: In Sochi, the Russians constructed a building adjacent to the drug-testing lab and then cut a hole in the wall. Each night, after the lab closed, workers passed dirty athlete samples out and clean samples in.
Two predictable things happened: Russia won the most medals. Not a single Russian tested positive. When they got done doping the Olympics, they then did the same at the Paralympics as well, which seems particularly pathetic. Russia won the most medals there, too, of course, more than three times the next-best country.
The World Anti-Doping Agency eventually cracked the case, causing the man who orchestrated the scheme, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, to flee to the United States where he entered witness protection (not before being featured in the Netflix doc “Icarus”). This was wise. Two of his cohorts turned up dead back in Russia, but that was probably just a "coincidence."
Anyway, this was so egregious that even the IOC decided it had to punish the Russians.
So it did. Sort of.
“Russia” isn’t here but approximately 330 Russians are. If an athlete hasn’t tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, then they are allowed to come.
They are technically competing for the “Russian Olympic Committee,” which apparently the IOC thinks will confuse everyone.
Couldn’t they have at least gotten creative and dubbed the Russians the “Sochi Hole-in-the-Wall Club” or “Vlad’s Not Here” or “Mike Eurizione Says Hello” or something? Doesn’t cheating the world’s visually impaired skiers and wheelchair curlers out of fair competition, merit some trolling?
Some of the IOC sanctions seem a bit ridiculous. The Russian artistic swim team is allowed to set its routine to a punk tune called “With Russia from Love” … but the IOC is cutting out the word “Russia.” It’s like listening to Kanye on terrestrial radio.
At the medal ceremony here, the Russian national anthem was replaced by “Piano Concerto No. 1” by Tchaikovsky, the Russian composer. The flag raised was not the Russian flag, but one featuring waves of an Olympic torch … but using the Russian colors of blue, red and white.
No Russian flags are allowed at any venue (or the Opening or Closing Ceremony), but they can be hung about the Olympic Village. So there’s that. Not that it matters. The Russians designed their uniforms to mimic the beloved Trikolor.
“If the flag is not allowed, we ourselves will be the flag,” Rugby captain Alena Tiron told the Russian state news agency RIA Novostu.
In Russia, the Olympics gold medal you.
“We know which country we stand for,” Tiron said.
Everyone does. A country that is adept at embedding spies in the highest level of governments around the globe doesn’t even have to try to be sneaky over here.
This is the worst disguise since Clark Kent became Superman. It’s the meme of the two Spidermans pointing at each other. It’s a wonder Vladimir Putin hasn’t shown up here riding a horse, shirtless through downtown Tokyo … but sporting a fake mustache and calling himself Pladamir Vutin.
The IOC’s entire plan completely backfired. It certainly didn’t keep the Russians out. And it certainly didn’t shame Russia, where Putin has used the ban to pump up nationalistic pride.
State-run media there decry the punishment using the classic three-pronged tactic of all caught/aggrieved parties: a) we’re innocent; b) even if we are guilty, what about the other guys; c) the world/media is just out to get poor-little-victim-us anyway.
It works every time everywhere, from Montana to Moscow. In this case it’s made the Russian athletes arguably even bigger heroes.
“Russia is expert at using propaganda,” Sarah Oates, a professor and expert in Russian propaganda at the University of Maryland told Yahoo Sports. “This fits the Russians' constant 'Us against the West' narrative, claiming that the athletes were unfairly treated as further evidence of how Russia is treated badly in the world in general.
“Russia is their team and you tend to support your team even in the face of scandals. This could work to the Kremlin's advantage to inspire anger at the international community and bolster Russian nationalism. That being said, Russians are a pretty sophisticated audience and are likely to be somewhat cynical about their government.”
The truth is there wasn’t much the IOC could do. Ignoring it would equate to condoning it. Yet punishing innocent athletes seems unfair — gymnast Elena Gerasimova, for example, was 9 years old during the Sochi Olympics. It wasn’t her fault.
The original sin was granting Putin the Winter Olympics in the first place. He spent $50 billion to host it. You think he was just going to take his chances on winning the most medals?
Bribes, however, pay bills.
So the IOC is still dealing with the cleanup seven years later, having to go through this charade: a bunch of Russians, dressed like Russian flags, climbing a podium to listen to a famed Russian composer and accept medals they will bring back to Russia.
They are definitely not competing for Russia. Nope. Not at all.
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