Olympics: Putin exhorts Olympians to defend national honour

Russian President Vladimir Putin making a defiant speech in the Kremlin, saying the decision to ban Russian athletes was without basis and politically motivated.
Russian President Vladimir Putin making a defiant speech in the Kremlin, saying the decision to ban Russian athletes was without basis and politically motivated.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

MOSCOW • Russia's Olympic team received a heroes' send-off at a Kremlin ceremony full of fighting words on Wednesday.

While the ceremony is a tradition, this year it was marked by especially fervent calls to defend the country's honour, given that more than 100 Russian athletes from various sports have been banned because of state-sponsored doping.

The main event was Russian President Vladimir Putin's defiant speech, in which he called the doping scandal a "targeted campaign" with "no concrete, evidence-based accusations", and argued the ban was "open discrimination" that would reduce the quality of competition at the Games.

Top competitors also addressed the audience in the glittering Alexander Hall, which included 114 athletes, Russian Olympic Committee head Alexander Zhukov and sports minister Vitaly Mutko.

Also in attendance were 49 members of Russia's track and field team, who have been barred from the Rio Olympics.

 

After Putin's speech, the two-time Olympic gold medallist pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva hugged him, thanked him for his support and then paused on the verge of tears, drawing applause from the hall.

She said: "Today track and field has ended up in the most difficult situation. They banned us without evidence, rudely, insolently, and didn't give us any chance to justify ourselves or fight for our right to participate in the Olympic Games.

"We are one team, we are one big world power. This situation should unify us. You should show what you're capable of, for yourself and for us... Walk with your head held high and proud… so that all these pseudo-clean foreign athletes understand they didn't attack the right people."

She went on to implore her compatriots to "compete so the whole world shudders and the hymn of the Russian Federation sounds in the sports arenas of Rio without stopping".

Sergey Tetyukhin, the volleyball captain who won gold in London and will be Russia's flag-bearer in Rio, similarly called for athletes to redouble their efforts in response to the doping scandal.

"In the face of all that's happening, of all the difficulties, we should unify, we should become much stronger," he said. "I promise that in the venues, in the sports arenas, we will battle for our country, flag, honour and for our good name."

The team's upbeat dress uniforms - dark red bow ties, blue blazers and white trousers for the men; striped shirts and blazers and white skirts for the women - belied the martial spirit of the occasion. The boxing coach Alexander Lebzyak even said they were "heading off to war".

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 29, 2016, with the headline 'Putin exhorts Olympians to defend national honour'. Print Edition | Subscribe