Rotten Russkies vs. noble Norwegians

Contrary to conventional wisdom, today’s Russia-bashing in sport is not a replay of Cold War animosities. Or, to put it otherwise, the furor over Russian athletes’ apparently liberal use of performance-enhancing substances is more than a Cold War-style confrontation between East and West. The finger-pointing goes further back than the Brezhnev era, or even the 1917 communist coup.

In early 1913, the Western media claimed to have discovered the secret to Russian speed skaters’ success. The crooked Russkies vied for world titles with Norwegian skaters because they used drugs! More specifically, they took ‘weak doses of strychnine shortly before the races,’ according to a Norwegian source.

Unsurprisingly, the Russians denied the charge, just as their compatriots bemoan today’s torrent of criticism.

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Does the skating controversy mean that sportive Russophobia dates back to the pre-Bolshevik era? Maybe, and in that case the crude animosity surely won’t dissipate in our lifetime.

Does it imply that Russian athletes have always been more knowledgeable about drugs than Western athletes? Certainly not. One hundred years ago, it was generally accepted that American athletes had the ‘best drugs’ in their medical bag, and the first thoroughly modern arguments in favor of performance-enhancing drugs were voiced in Weimar Germany.

While cultural historians could start probing the origins of anti-Russian sentiment in sport, other scholars should perhaps cast a critical eye over Western countries. Take Norway, for example.

Martin Johnsrud Sundby, one of the most accomplished cross-country skiers of his generation, lost a few titles over a doping infringement this week. Sundby had tested positive more than a year ago – in fact, there were two positive tests – but the embarrassing news was hushed up by authorities. The Norwegian Ski Federation didn’t wish to admonish their star attraction, of course, and the International Ski Federation proved equally reluctant to acknowledge Sundby’s illicit drug use.

Ultimately, the Court of Arbitration in Sport imposed a meaningless two-month ban on the skier whose competitive season starts in November. A few days later, however, the very same court agreed to kick countless Russian track athletes out of the Rio games, athletes who had never tested positive!

As the strychnine incident strongly indicates, Russia cannot escape the fate of the usual suspect. Norwegian woods, by contrast, teem with upright athletes whose drug offences are dismissed as innocuous mishaps. Sundby’s ‘misunderstanding’, incidentally, was sanctioned by the Russ… er, the Norwegian Ski Federation.

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