Russia’s decades-long dominance in rhythmic gymnastics was shattered at this year’s Tokyo Olympics, where Russian athletes failed to win the Olympic gold in the individual all-around event for the first time since 1996. In Sunday’s group competition, Russia didn’t win gold either, losing to Bulgaria.
Since authoritarian countries cherish Olympic competitions as a tool to inflame nationalist sentiments and promote their countries’ global standing, Russia’s defeats were loudly rejected by a host of pro-Kremlin voices—who resorted to state media’s time-honored tradition of conspiracy-mongering.
Experts on Russian state television have been trying to read each country’s Olympic gold medals as tea leaves, suggesting that the outcome determines the new global hegemon. Last week, pro-Kremlin pundits, hosts, and experts relished the idea of the “weakened” United States being edged out by China. The host of the state TV show 60 Minutes, Olga Skabeeva, pontificated: “You can’t beat China. They have the most gold medals.” Eager to inject Russia’s notorious transphobic rhetoric into the conversation, Skabeeva added: “And none of them are transgenders, so they will keep procreating.”
To Russia’s dismay, the United States ultimately surpassed China, winning 39 gold medals and 113 medals overall—the most in the world. And that means, according to Russian state TV’s logic, that the U.S. is not relinquishing its global leadership—which does not sit well with Russia.
“Tokyo Olympics are the clearest example of total Russophobia. These Olympic Games stink. Global sports forever ceased being an honest competition, turning into a cheap political farce,” Skabeeva raged on Monday’s broadcast of 60 Minutes. She baselessly alleged: “At the behest of Americans, the International Olympic Committee took away two gold medals from Russia.”
Lawmaker Aleksei Zhuravlyov described other countries competing in the Tokyo Games as “a pack of Russophobic beasts, headed by the United States.” “Americans are freaks. Moral freaks. Why are we even discussing this parade of freaks and perverts?” asked Pyotr Tolstoy, deputy speaker of the Russian State Duma.
Oleg Matveychev, a member of the Russian Expert Institute for Social Research, claimed that Olympic judges’ decisions had been swayed by Russophobic propaganda.
“The medal of the Israeli sportswoman is worthless, she should throw it out,” he said, referring to Linoy Ashram’s win over Russian Dina Averina in the rhythmic gymnastics all-around competition—which the Russian team asked to be overturned. “She hung shame around her neck.” He proceeded to assert that American Olympic victories are “worthless” and likewise are “achieved by cheating,” calling for all U.S. athletes to be allowed to compete only in the Paralympics, because so many of them are “sick.”
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko told TASS on Sunday that the Russian Olympic Committee sent a request to the International Gymnastics Federation about judging in the rhythmic gymnastics. Accusing the judges of being biased, Chernyshenko said: “Naturally, we will not leave unaddressed situations when politics were above objective and fair appraisal of performances of Russian athletes.”
Appearing on state TV channel Rossiya-24, the president of the Russian Rhythmic Gymnastics Federation, Irina Viner-Usmanova, claimed: “During these Olympic Games, for the first time in history there has been such horror and mayhem… This outcome was planned in advance.” She added that the decision was supposedly made “not based on the performance and not based on results, but based on the desired outcome.” Viner-Usmanova described the judging of the Olympic event in question as “obscene.”
On her Telegram account, Foreign Affairs Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova explained Russia’s losses by alleging that “Russophobic bastards” could not allow Russia to win and therefore “resorted to fraud in front of the entire world.” Appearing on Monday’s broadcast of 60 Minutes, Zakharova claimed that Russia’s victories and achievements are being usurped by its opponents. “Global sports are in danger,” she complained, bellyaching about “gross injustice” perpetrated against Russian athletes in Tokyo.
RT’s editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, was so upset with the judges of the gymnastics competition that she tweeted: “After the slaughter of our gymnasts by judges from different countries, I really regret not working for the GRU.” GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, is known to specialize in sabotage and assassinations and was reportedly responsible for the attempted assassination of ex-double agent Sergei Skripal in the English city of Salisbury in 2018.
Russia’s overblown reaction has no basis in reality. The main complaint against the gold medal victory of Israel’s Ashram is that she dropped her ribbon during the last exercise, with Russian sports figures and commentators claiming that such a mess-up would have made it impossible for her to win. However, Averina, the Russian silver medalist in Tokyo, won gold at the 2018 world championship despite the fact that she had dropped her ribbon, beating none other than Ashram into silver. This year, Ashram’s routine exceeded Averina’s in its level of difficulty, with cumulative points securing her victory—even after the deduction for her error.
Disregarding the facts, the head of state-funded RT, Simonyan, described the Olympic judges as “beasts,” posted their names on her Twitter account, and called for the Russians in Tokyo to spit at their backs. Simonyan insisted that Ashram can “remain a human being” only if she returns the gold medal. As a result of the vicious smear campaign waged by Moscow, Ashram’s social media pages have been flooded by hateful comments from resentful Russians.
Aside from wounded pride, Russia’s accusations of rigged Olympics serve another important political agenda: nurturing the narrative of fortress under siege to promote national unity.
Appearing on Monday’s 60 Minutes, Professor Oleg Barabanov of the Russian Academy of Sciences explicitly articulated this approach: “I read a lot of comments on sports forums to decipher public opinions on various topics. I was amazed how unanimously our country supported Dina and [twin sister] Arina Averina in this unfair judging… The biggest outcome is that our entire country saw and understood that there is an ongoing anti-Russian campaign, that we are encircled by the ring of enemies… not only according to the tales of TV propagandists, but in real life. From this point of view, those judges who misjudged Dina Averina did a big, useful thing for the consolidation of Russian society.”