Written by Eleanor Hardy
Tarnished by endless doping scandals, riddled with corruption and in the deep midwinter, can Russians find a reason to keep their passion for sports alive and are they still being punished by the West for the Cold War?
The current outside air temperature here in St Petersburg is a balmy -16 degrees Celsius and I can’t say it is tempting me to get outside and join in a football match, but that is not to say it is stopping the locals. The Russians are not the kind of people to allow something like the cold to prevent them from enjoying one of their great passions: sports. Just last week I was lucky enough to watch Zenit St Petersburg play Celtic in the newly built Krestovsky football stadium and the thing that impressed me more than the efficient security and the state of the art heated indoor pitch, was the atmosphere. People, certainly in the West, often immediately associate Russian football with racist hooliganism and violence. Of course this is duly reinforced by the stereotypical view of Russian fans as burly vodka-fuelled middle aged men, yet neither of these were true in my experience. The stadium was family friendly; children accompanied their parents, delighting in seeing their local team cruise to a 3-0 victory over the Scottish visitors. It was in many respects too good to be true. Since the days of the 1980s Moscow Olympic boycott, Russia and the West have struggled to see eye to eye on any sports field and the press on both sides hardly does much to help relations, but are things changing? Is it time to rewrite some of the preconceptions we have about sports in Russia?
In truth our understanding of Russian state controlled events would not support this opinion, but as the History, Classics and Archaeology School at Edinburgh always teaches us: in history you can never listen to just one side of the story. Perhaps those dated arguments from historians that love to demonise the USSR do not fit so perfectly with the image of modern Russia? Russians, like most other people, are passionate about their sports, and as in many other countries there are incidents of racism, hooliganism, drunkenness and fighting but this is not standard practice. As far as I can see the focus is on the game itself rather than acts of criminality.
However, the recent doping scandals that have dogged Russian sports cannot be ignored either. From tennis to athletics it seems state sponsored performance enhancing drugs were used extensively and thus the Olympic ban was justified. On saying that, Russia is not the only country to have recently faced accusations of malpractice and further to that, what I have found so admirable is that the Russians refuse even to let this stop them. Although many athletes from various disciplines were implicated in the scandal it is important to remember many were not. Those individuals and teams deserve to be recognised too for their talent and hard work as much as any other competitive sportsperson.
With the Winter Olympics now having drawn to a close in South Korea, here in St Petersburg you cannot escape talk of the Russian successes there. The incredibly talented fifteen year old figure skater Alina Zagitova (who won gold at Pyeongchang) and her compatriot Evgenia Medvedeva are the talk of the town. Add to this the impressive victory of the Russian men’s’ ice hockey team over Germany in the final on the last day of the competition and it is not hard to see why Russians are still finding reasons to be proud of their sportsmen and women. It is not just the fans and support at home that is a testament to Russian resilience in sports. The proud singing of the Russian National anthem by the ice hockey champions emphasises how the patriotism in sports has not been destroyed by the corruption and punishment. Bans, media stories and political battles have not deterred the sturdy Russians.
It remains a difficult historical issue. Will Russia ever be fairly judged in the West? Will the Russian government ever truly stop meddling? Dostoevsky wrote in his epic novel Crime and Punishment: ‘it wasn’t a human being I killed, it was a principle!’ Let us hope that the principle of cheating has been killed but perhaps also the principle of prejudice against Russia of the West.