Yesterday, the International Olympic Committee banned Russia from the upcoming Winter Olympics. This isn’t the partial ban imposed on Russia for the 2016 games. This time, Russia is being expunged from the Olympics. As the New York Times sums it up, “The country’s government officials are forbidden to attend, its flag will not be displayed at the opening ceremony, and its anthem will not sound. Any athletes from Russia who receive special dispensation to compete will do so as individuals wearing a neutral uniform.” The only concession to Russia is that athletes “with histories of rigorous drug testing” who are admitted to the games with those neutral uniforms will be referred to as “Olympic Athletes from Russia” rather than “Independent Olympic Athletes.” But “the official record books will forever show that Russia won zero medals.”
The whole debacle is an object lesson about the illusions of Vladimir Putin’s chest-thumping nationalism—and a warning for anyone in America who is tempted to emulate it.
Putin’s whole program for Russia over the past fifteen years has been to restore what he sees as the status and prestige his country lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union—which, underneath all of its propaganda, was really a kind of Russian Empire. But Putin has not restored Russia by actually making his country great. He has done it by chasing after the hollow prestige of military domination in self-destructive border conflicts and Olympic medal counts pumped up by a vast official program of cheating.
Russia’s current Olympic disaster stems from the “Sochi plan,” an effort at the top levels of the Putin regime to pump up Russia’s medal count at the 2014 Winter Olympics in southern Russia. This was done by pumping up Russian athletes with cocktails of drugs devised by chemist Grigory Rodchenkov and corrupting the drug-testing laboratory at Sochi in order to produce fake clean results.
And then it all fell apart. After a Russian runner blew the whistle, the International Olympic Committee began to investigate, and the more they looked, the more they found. Then Grigory Rodchenkov defected—we don’t call it that any more, but that’s what it is—bringing with him a diary meticulously documenting every moment of his life, including his work plotting the “Sochi plan” with Russian government officials. The evidence was so extensive, the program so brazen, that it left the International Olympic Committee, which is usually no profile in courage, little choice but to ban Russia completely.
The obsession with Olympic medals as a sign of prestige is a leftover of Russia’s Soviet era. It’s an old propaganda trick of Communist regimes to make up for their failure to deliver freedom and prosperity by instead pouring their resources into some one easily visible and easily manipulated measure of accomplishment. Have you heard about the high literacy rate in Cuba? I’m sure you have, and the reason you’ve heard about it is because Cuba can’t claim much of anything else as evidence for the achievements of socialism.
The same was true of the Soviets. People may have been standing in lines for hours to buy basic necessities like boots and bread, while any dissident who piped up to criticize the government got thrown in prison. But they could plow huge amounts of money and manpower into their Olympic program and point to the resulting medals as proof of the glories of socialism.
Vladimir Putin is an old Soviet apparatchik and just can’t help reverting to type. Hence the Sochi plan as a way of restoring the old Soviet-era Olympic prestige. But notice the long-term result: a bunch of those Russian medals from Sochi have now been expunged from the records, and now Russia is being expunged from the Olympics. There will be no flag-raising ceremonies, no Russian anthem played while its athletes mount the podium, no official medal count. There is even talk that Putin might order Russia to boycott the Olympics altogether, taking his ball and going home.
Therein lies the cautionary tale about this kind of resentful, chip-on-the-shoulder nationalism, with its focus on strutting prestige and short-term “winning.” It’s a form of overcompensation. This is what nationalists fall back on because they have rejected the conditions of actual long-term success.
We have to understand the distinction between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism is a love of your country, a belief in its value in the world, and a celebration of its virtues. Nationalism is a belief that the nation-state and its aggrandizement is the central goal of life, toward which all of society should be organized. You can grasp the difference by understanding how, in America, patriotism and nationalism have always been opposites, because the elevation of the state over the individual is a negation of our founding principles. America’s value in the world, the central virtue that we celebrate, is a love of freedom—not a dominant, all-powerful state.
This turns out to be the long-term key to our national greatness. We are a great and powerful and vibrant nation because we are free. Unleashing the potential of our citizens to think, create, and build is what allowed us to tame a continent, to become the greatest industrial and commercial power in the world, to become a center of learning and an originator of global culture. All of those things also make it possible for us to send a lot of really great athletes to the Olympics. But we don’t need to obsess over our medal counts or pad them out with official cheating, because athletic prowess is only one of many things we have to offer.
It also turns out that the new Russian nationalism, with its willingness to sacrifice individual rights for the sake of the fatherland, laid the seeds for its own undoing. It was watching several of his colleagues in the Russian doping program suffer mysterious deaths that prompted Rodchenkov to sell out the Putin regime and seek asylum in the West.
There is lesson here about how illiberal nationalism promises an illusion of national greatness—while actually delivering a string of national humiliations.