Why is it not Russia, but ROC, performing at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics?

Opening Ceremony at the Olympic Stadium. The Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) team with flag bearers fencer Sofya Velikaya and volleyball player Maxim Mikhaylov enter the stadium

Opening Ceremony at the Olympic Stadium. The Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) team with flag bearers fencer Sofya Velikaya and volleyball player Maxim Mikhaylov enter the stadium

Michael Kappeler/dpa/Global Look Press
Due to recent doping scandals, Russian athletes were not allowed to officially represent Russia at international sporting events. So, Russian authorities had to come up with a way around the ban, in order to take part in the XXXII Summer Games.

The world is curious why Team Russia is not performing at the Tokyo 2020 Games. Instead, there is a team called the ‘Russian Olympic Committee’ (ROC). Well, in short, this was done in  the aftermath of the doping scandal and a ban of Russian athletes from participating in international competitions under the Russian flag. 

Flag-bearers Sofya Velikaya and Maxim Mikhaylov of the Russian Olympic Committee team lead their country's contingent during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games

Despite Team Russia being officially banned, the athletes and the committee found a way for Russian athletes to participate at the Tokyo 2020 Games (which were delayed to July 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic). They asked the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to allow them to perform under the name ‘Russian Olympic Committee (ROC), which doesn’t technically have the word ‘Russia’, which is currently banned. 

Athletes of the Russian Olympic Committee team march during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games

This way, they also got the chance to use the symbols of the ROC… whose colors refer to the banned Russian national flag. And instead of the national Russian anthem (which was also banned), the IOC permitted a fragment of Pyotr Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 to be played instead.

In fact, the ROC has its own long history… and deserves to act separately. And here’s why.

When was the Russian Olympic Committee founded?

It was founded in 1911 and celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2011.

The postage stamp marks the anniversary of Russia’s Olympic Committee foundation

Athletes of the Russian Empire didn’t take part in the first three Games of the revived Olympics. Eight Russian athletes participated in the 1908 London Olympics and even won several medals. While, in 1912, the newly founded Russian Olympic Committee sent 178 athletes to the 5th Olympic Games in Stockholm, who participated in all disciplines… but unfortunately did not win any gold medals. 

Was there an Olympic Committee in the Soviet Union?

The next Olympic Games after their cancellation during World War I were held in 1920. Russia had already faced the Revolution by that moment, but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) didn’t recognize the new Soviet authorities. So it didn’t send an invitation to the country to take part in the 1920 Games. 

While it was already the Soviet Union to boycott the next “capitalist” Games, ignoring the invitations. The Soviet athletes participated in alternative competitions arranged internationally among committees of workers and communists.

The Soviet Union also skipped the first Games after World War II, the 1948 Olympiad in London, as the country had to recover after the war. But the Soviet state was also pushing sports and  healthy lifestyles to the masses and had strong athletes, so, soon, the Soviets took a course to integrate in international sports. In 1951, the Soviet Olympic Committee was founded and was at once recognized by the IOC. Soviet athletes performed triumphantly in their first Olympics, the 1952 Games in Helsinki. They won 22 gold medals and managed to score the same amount of points as the United States. 

The 1976 Summer Olympic Games in Montreal. Olympic sabre fencing medalists from the Soviet Union, from left: silver medalist Vladimir Nazlimov, gold medalist Viktor Krovopuskov, and bronze medalist Viktor Sidyak.

In 1980, the Soviet Union arranged the Summer Olympics in Moscow, which the U.S. boycotted and, in response, the USSR didn’t participate in the next 1984 Games in Los Angeles - it was the only Olympiad the Soviets skipped after the Committee was founded. 

Closing ceremony for 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow. Lenin Central Stadium (Luzhniki).

What happened after the USSR collapsed? 

In 1989, even before the Soviet country disappeared, Russia founded its own committee and after the collapse, in 1992, the IOC recognized the Russian Olympic Committee as a successor to the Soviet one. 

The emblem of the Russian Olympic Committee

In 2014, Russia held its first Olympics in modern history. The preparation for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi was perceived controversially and international media was very sceptical about it, especially the fact that winter sports would be played in a subtropical city on the seaside. But, despite all that, the Games were a tremendous success.

Sport fans with Russian flags in the Olympic Park during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

When did the problems for the Russian Olympic Committee start?

In 2017, Russia faced a huge doping scandal, suspected of having a state-sponsored doping program and ignoring international Olympic rules. The Russian membership in the IOC was suspended, but restored in 2018, as almost all the athletes had passed the latest drug tests. 

In 2019, Russia faced another scandal and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) sentenced Russia to a four year long ban on participating in any international sports, including the Olympics. Later, in 2020, the Court of Arbitration for Sport allowed Russian athletes to perform in competitions, but on the condition they do not perform under the Russian name, flag, or use the national anthem for the remainder of the ban and perform as “neutral athletes”.

Pictured: A Russian flag hastily removed at checkers championship

So, this is why spectators around the world will watch Russian athletes performing at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics under the mysterious ‘ROC’ title! 

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