Doping scandal rocks Russian sport but Putin's ratings look safe

Fri Jul 22, 2016 11:03am EDT
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By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Having your athletes barred from the Olympics because your government stands accused of systematically covering up doping would trigger a political firestorm in many countries, hurting the standing of the person at the top.

But in Russia, months away from parliamentary elections at a time of economic crisis, President Vladimir Putin and his allies have deftly deflected the blame by passing it off as a Western Cold War-style plot to sabotage Russia's international comeback.

The latest crisis over doping is too fresh to have yet been reflected in opinion polls. But even if it tarnishes one of the showpieces of Putin's legacy -- hosting the 2014 winter Olympics -- pollsters predict the scandal is unlikely to hurt him much.

"It (the doping scandal) will have no bearing on his popularity. It's not a question of logic," Stepan Goncharov, of the Levada Center, an independent pollster, told Reuters.

Levada's latest survey, conducted in June, gave Putin an approval rating of 81 percent, down from its peak last year of 89 percent, but still stratospheric by Western standards.

"Voters don't link domestic problems, such as those with the economy, to Putin," said Goncharov. "For them it's other people who are to blame."

Putin, who cast his hosting of the 2014 Sochi winter Olympics as a $50 billion symbol of Russia's success under his leadership, complained this week of what he called a dangerous return to Cold War style political interference in sport.

Likening the situation to the 1980s when Moscow and Washington boycotted one another's Olympics, Putin inferred that the doping scandal, which has already cost Russia's track and field athletes their place at the Rio Olympics and could yet see the whole team barred, was a political hit job.   Continued...

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during the launching ceremony of the 2018 World Cup and 2017 Confederations Cup volunteer campaign in Moscow, Russia, June 1, 2016.  REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov