With Russian athletes banned from all FIS competitions, and no end in sight for the war in Ukraine, there is a growing belief that Russian skiers are unlikely to rejoin the World Cup next season.
Some commentators have gone further, proclaiming that we have seen the last of Bolshunov, Neprayeva, and the rest of the Russian team on the international stage. The pessimism is rooted in the history of similar bans—which tend to be long lived—and the uncertainty over what circumstances would allow for the Russians to rejoin.
Will the ban end when Ukrainian athletes can return fully to competition? That may not be possible until long after the end of the conflict. Perhaps a negotiated peace settlement? That possibility could still create discontent with athletes such as Bolshunov being used to fuel propaganda at home. Does the ban require the Putin regime to end? That could be a distant future.
“I expect that this situation will last as long as the conflict is unsolved,” said Vegard Ulvang, the outgoing chairman of the FIS Cross Country Committee, “but that’s of course up to the FIS Council or IOC.”
Ulvang was outspoken in calling for the Russian exclusion from the Norwegian hosted World Cup events this spring. Ulvang said in a call, “We have a fairness rule in FIS that there should be equal opportunities. When one nation cannot compete because they have to go home to defend their country, and the attacking country is racing, that’s not nice.”
Ulvang’s point is underscored by the Ukrainian athletes now fighting on the front lines, with many called up just days after returning from the Beijing Olympics. Among the Olympians taking up arms was Dmytro Pidruchnyi, a biathlete who has won gold in the World Championships. The danger faced by the athletes defending their country was made clear early on in the conflict with the tragic loss of nineteen year old biathlete Yevhen Malyshev, who was killed defending Kharkiv on February 26th.
Another explanation for the ban was that it would help send a message to everyday Russians and deprive the state of a propaganda tool.
The charge that athletes were being used for propaganda purposes was confirmed during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s March 16th pro-war rally in Moscow. The event, titled “For a World Without Nazism” was MC’d by longtime biathlon TV commentator Dmitry Guberniev. Stars of the Beijing Olympics—including Alexander Bolshunov—were trotted out in front of the (reportedly) 100,000 strong audience in the Luzhniki stadium.
Questions remain about whether the athletes attended of their own accord, and there has been speculation about whether Bolshunov’s decision not to wear a letter Z pin on the stage—a pro-war symbol—reflected an ambivalent attitude to the conflict now raging near his home.
On April 26th, a host of Olympic heroes were called to receive state awards by Vladimir Putin in a ceremony that required the athletes to quarantine prior to the visit. Putin congratulated the skiers, saying “First of all, I would like to note the long-awaited victories in the relay race…We have not had a simultaneous victory of both the women’s and men’s teams for exactly half a century. This is a big result.”
A few notable Russian stars missed the Kremlin occasion: Bolshunov for dental surgery, Neprayeva because she arrived to quarantine sick, and Ustiugov because his wife had recently given birth.
Bolshunov’s absence at the event stirred further speculation that he had intentionally scheduled the surgery to avoid the ceremony, and with it the possibility of a personal ban set against him by FIS, much as FINA – the International Swimming Federation – did by banning Yevgeny Rylov for nine months after he stood next to Bolshunov at the March 16th rally.
Elena Vyalbe, who heads the Russian Ski Federation, manages the national team, and sits on the FIS council, dismissed this speculation, saying, “Who wrote that Alexander [Bolshunov] refused? I already spoke about this…He was scheduled for surgery on the 24th [of April].”
However, during the Olympics Bolshunov made it clear he dreaded the idea of the quarantine required to meet Putin, saying, “If they put me in jail forcibly, I’ll run away in two hours. I can’t just take it and throw 10-14 days out of my life. It’s unrealistic.”
During the Kremlin ceremony, Putin singled out the missing Bolshunov for special praise: “I note that Alexander Bolshunov has collected a solid collection of awards in Beijing,” Putin said. “Everyone knows this well. He has three gold, silver and bronze medals. And the absolutely well-deserved symbolic title of king of skis.”
The political significance of the event, which was delayed due to the war in Ukraine, was not lost on anyone. Veronika Stepanova, the upcoming ski star from Kamchatka seized the moment to make a splash.
Addressing Putin and the Kremlin audience, Stepanova said, “I am the same age as the century—I was born in January, 2001. Before my very eyes, Russia has again become strong, proud, and successful. Not everyone in the world likes it. It is obvious. But we are on the right track. And we will definitely win, as we won at the Olympics.”
The overt statement of support from Stepanova far exceeded expectations of decorum that called for perfunctory public speaking at most. That Stepanova would jeopardize a burgeoning ski career for a soundbite even shocked Russian commentators who speculated that the 21 year old was positioning herself for a transition to politics. For her part, Stepanova responded saying, “Negative consequences for my international career? They don’t scare [me].”
Far from distancing herself from the comments, Stepanova has brashly doubled down, saying, “Was I nervous when I spoke at the meeting with Putin? You have to believe in what you say. The presence of the president does not confuse or frighten, on the contrary, it energizes. You feel tremendous confidence next to him, you feel a special energy.”
Stepanova’s words have reverberated as she has gained a following in the west: outgoing and fluent in English, as well as adept at social media, many fans as well as fellow competitors felt they could relate easily to her.
Helene Marie Fossesholm of Norway was one such skier that enjoyed a friendly rapport with Stepanova off the ski trails. In the wake of her Kremlin speech, Fossesholm told NRK she was uncertain of how the friendship would continue, saying, “I can not answer that until I have experienced it. But it is clear that it will not be forgotten, at all.”
Flooded with foreign media requests to explain herself, Stepanova responded via her Instagram page, writing “I have an answer to [Western journalists]: Did you expect anything else from me? Just because I smile, speak a little English and am almost always ready for some nonsense, does that make me ‘another type of Russian?’ The peak of naivety!”
Vyalbe has been among Stepanova’s detractors this spring, criticizing her by saying that she may be suffering from “star disease” and that “now she is not an athlete, but a patriotic blogger.” For the head of Russian skiing, Stepanova has become irksome. “My senior leaders ask me questions about her,” Vyalbe told Championat, “and I feel ashamed and unpleasant.”
For her part, Vyalbe faced pressure in her bid to remain on the FIS council, after the Ski Federations of Poland, Finland, and Sweden moved to bar her from running for reelection at the FIS Congress on May 26th. FIS, however, allowed Vyalbe’s candidacy.
In allowing Vyalbe to run, FIS may have looked at the difficulties endured by the International Luge Federation (FIL). In early March FIL had voted to ban Russia in much the same manner as FIS, though Luge went a step further—voting in favor of expelling elected officials from Russia.
In April, Russia won their appeal in the FIL’s own Court of Arbitration, and saw the ban removed on the grounds that they were—according to the Russian Luge Federation—”dictated solely by political motives and had no legal grounds for adoption”.
For FIS, the Luge ruling was likely a reminder that barring Vyalbe from running could run afoul of their own laws against politically motivated rulings.
Apart from from the symbolism of being Russia’s representative to FIS, Vyalbe had escalated tensions in the ski world by laying the blame for the ban squarely on the shoulders of Norway’s FIS representatives—Erik Røste, the head of the Norwegian Ski Federation and FIS councilor, and Vegard Ulvang, the outgoing chairman of the FIS cross country skiing committee.
In response, Røste said, “Norway will not vote for Russia because of the terrible things happening in Ukraine.”
The Vyalbe election saga has proven to be a tender subject for Russian commentators. When Swedish skier Markus Grate commented that “There is no possibility that Vyalbe will remain on the council,” biathlon TV commentator Guberniev declared that if Grate was suggesting that Vyalbe be excluded on the basis of her nationality, then “he is a Nazi, these are the words of a Nazi.”
In any case, Vyalbe lost the election on May 26th at the FIS Congress—finishing last. “In this situation, it was expected,” Vyalbe said. “There was a letter from the Ukrainian Federation, which says that everything should be politicized.”
With Vyalbe out of the FIS council, Russian skiing will likely recede further into seclusion.
Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 of this series, which will be released over the next week.
Pasha Kahn writes and coaches in Duluth, Minnesota.