The I.O.C. has prohibited Russian flags and other national symbols, but let in the majority of athletes from Russia (over 170). In doing so, it has splayed its legs across the awkward divide of the Olympics — the one between global sporting event, and global pageant of nationalism.
On the one hand (and, I’m sorry to say, increasingly), the Olympics serves as stage for nationalist expression, not only for the country of the host locale but for every country putatively involved. US television focuses on athletes with the United States flag on their uniforms; athletes are only allowed to participate under a country’s banner if they are citizens of that country. It’s this logic that incenses those watching the Russian doping scandal. “If so many athletes were caught violating the rules of the Olympics,” they say, “then why has the country not been properly punished? Why hasn’t Russia been banned entirely?” In their mind, letting athletes through is a gift to a nation that has violated the terms of this nationalistic get-together.
The I.O.C. should have let through any Russian athlete found to have been clean, regardless of that athlete’s affiliation — not as a favor to Russia, but as a way of saying that Russia doesn’t matter. The nationalist components of the Olympics are a tragedy. I would tentatively say that the nationalism disgraces the athletes as well. Let the athletes compete, and let them do so under a flag — any flag, who cares. Treating the removal of “Russian” displays as a punishment only reifies the worst tendencies of the Games.
Of course, better still if there were no flags at all.