Now this here is what I'm talking about, best way to stick it to them is to win metal, any metal. Also, comments are delicious salt mine
On Thursday night, as the Russian women’s fencing team came out for their gold medal match, they played The Imperial March from Star Wars. That’s Darth Vader’s theme song.
(In fairness, they also played it for their opponents, France, but the Russians arrived first).
Over the next hour and a bit, there were shades of La Grande Armée, as the Russians stabbed the hell out of the French and sent them to ragged retreat.
It ended with Russia up on stage, screaming and doing bodybuilding poses, while the French team stood in a corner muttering at each other. No better visual representation of European relations over the past two centuries was ever painted.
That win – Russia’s eighth in Tokyo – pushed them into a tie for fourth place on the medal table.
For a country that’s not at the Olympics, it sure is winning a lot of things here.
Individuals are having best-in-life moments everywhere, but it’s hard to argue any one country is having an especially good time at the Tokyo Games.
The hosts co-led the medal table as of Thursday night, but are still experiencing a miserable go of it elsewhere.
The Americans have the most medals overall, and all anybody wants to talk about is Simone Biles. China is steamrolling, but they have become the paranoid cousin at international holiday gatherings – constantly on high alert for insults. Everyone else is muddling along.
Only Russia seems to be having a blast.
Now we don’t mean “Russia” Russia. The country of Russia has been put in the Olympic naughty corner and won’t be let out until the end of next year.
This is the diplomatic version of, “Your mother and I have talked and we agreed. No. More. Secret. Doping. Labs. Hopefully, you’ll learn something from this.”
Because of the shenanigans in the Sochi Games in 2014, followed by a stubborn unwillingness to co-operate with new oversight, Russia has been banned.
What seems like Russia is instead the ROC. That stands for Russian Olympic Committee, though no one is supposed to say that here. Acronym only, please.
As the ROC got up to accept its fencing medals, all three arena announcers said “Russian Olympic Committee” in English, French and Japanese. We heard the “anthem” of the ROC – a nice piece of repurposed Tchaikovsky. Then the Russians convinced the bronze-medal Italians to come up for a maskless, group hug and a photo. I believe the technical term for this is “recidivism.”
To be clear – they may seem Russian to you, but these people are not “Russia.” They were born in Russia. They live in Russia. They speak Russian, have Russian passports and are wearing the Russian colours. However, not Russian.
The point of the measures imposed on Russia – no name, no flag, no anthem – is humiliation. If they won’t play by the rules, then they have to wear the Olympic dunce cap if they want to participate.
But humiliation is transactional. It only works if the humiliated party agrees to accept its part.
Do the Russians look humiliated to you? Do you see them skulking into and out of events? No, they come strutting in like they’ve just arrived on the Death Star and are headed for the bar.
Swagger has gone out of fashion, especially at a perfectly egalitarian venue like this one, but the Russians still have it. They play a part, just not the one they were assigned. This mood was captured by rugby player Alena Tiron, speaking to journalists back home: “If the flag is not allowed, we will be the flag.”
Great job, everyone. You tried to turn this team into a laughingstock. Instead, you ended up producing a Slavic remake of Braveheart.
It’s a good thing the International Olympic Committee and its buddies got this whole “actions have consequences” thing sorted after Sochi. Otherwise, who knows what hijinks those kooky kids in Moscow might have gotten up to since 2014.
If all these punitive measures have been pointless, even counter-to-purpose, they have at least managed to turn Russia back into the black hat of the Olympics. That is their finest role.
When you think of the classic Olympics, the Olympics at its peak, it’s the Olympics of the 1970s and 1980s. East vs. West. Unbeatable, anonymous, pot-bellied weightlifters vs. American pin-ups like Mark Spitz. The Soviet machine vs. the libertines of Hollywood.
Back then, you understood who you were meant to root for (your friends) and who you were meant to cheer against (the people who had nuclear missiles pointed at you). Life was simpler.
Since then, “your friends” has become everyone, all the time. Hooray! We’re all here participating and being nice to each other. People still cheat all the livelong day, but they are nice while they do it.
That’s fine as far as it goes, but it’s not really sports, is it? The main point of sports is skimming a little aggro off the top. If you want to get fit, take the stairs. It requires less equipment.
Russia not only fills that requirement for a team that’s easy to root against, but they are begging you to do so. They thrive on your resentment.
How else would you explain their eagerness to be thrown out of the Olympics? All they had to do was turn over a few records. That’s it. But they would not do it. They still won’t. You have to admire the sheer bloody mindedness.
Total insensitivity to what others want or expect from them acts as a shield. Russia doesn’t care what you call them, or how you dress them. Winning is their business and business is, well, not great, but pretty, pretty good.
In getting this completely wrong, the IOC and its enforcement partners have somehow gotten it kind of right.
In order to function, the Olympics do not require perfect fairness. That is self-evidently true because every time they do this, a bunch of people are caught doing drugs, and yet they still do it again.
What they require is a healthy mix of types. Heroes and villains and a supporting cast. You need heartwarming stories, absolutely, but you also need some dramatic tension. That requires friction.