May in Russia: checkers flag drama reveals ROC’s true colours6 min read

 In Editorial, Politics, Russia
The situation could hardly have been more tense. After a series of gruelling early exchanges, neither party was prepared to concede an inch. Then, in a twist that no one saw coming, Jacek Pawlicki broke the deadlock. Despite being “afraid”, the Polish official struck decisively, capturing the Russian flag and then exiting stage left before anyone at the table had the chance to stop him. That his move initially went undetected says less about Pawlicki’s swiftness of foot than it does about the superhuman levels of concentration required to achieve success at this, the most elite level of competitive draughts.

Stunned by Pawlicki’s audacious swoop, and with the red, white and blue flag no longer by her side, the usually unflappable seven-time Women’s World Draughts Champion Tamara Tansykkuzhina from the Russian Republic of Bashkortostan, was thrown completely off her game. Across the table, her opponent, Poland’s Natalia Sadowska, herself a gold medallist in 2016 and 2018, remained unmoved. Taking full advantage of the confusion, Sadowska kept her cool to win the game, storming into a 32-16 lead in the match, and edging ever closer to the 54 points required for a victory that would have her crowned champion in her home city of Warsaw, where the final was taking place.

You might have expected the story to end there. But, before the day was over, what had begun as a clumsy attempt to comply with official tournament protocol threatened to spiral out of control. First, the president of Russia’s Olympic committee weighed in, describing Pawlicki’s seizure of the Russian flag in the heat of battle as a “gross mistake”. It was only a matter of time before Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also felt compelled to speak out. Peskov had no doubt that the Polish official’s untimely intervention was solely responsible for Tansykkuzhina losing the game.

Polish Solidarity Movement

With tempers reaching boiling point, and five of the nine days required to complete the final still left to play, both finalists returned to the table the following morning. Fortunately, Natalia Sadowska’s next move was an astute one. In an act of solidarity with her Russian opponent, she removed her own Polish flag from the match table, restoring calm to proceedings and levelling the playing field once more. An official apology from the Polish authorities soon followed. To the relief of all involved, not least Jacek Pawlicki, Kremlin spokesman Peskov accepted that this meant the issue had now “been settled”. With order restored, Tansykkuzhina regained her composure, launching an audacious comeback in the match to overhaul Sadowska’s advantage and take the coveted world title once again.

Played on a board of 10 x 10 alternating dark and light squares, with a relatively small repertoire of moves available to each player, draughts, also known as checkers, is, like politics, largely a game of strategy. Yet unlike its glamorous cousin chess, which provides the backdrop to the hit Cold-War-inspired Netflix series ‘The Queen’s Gambit’, draughts has rarely been the subject of international headlines or political intrigue. So why was this mid-match flag grab during a relatively obscure board game of any concern to Russia’s top brass?

Crime and Punishment 

It all stems back to December 2019, when the Executive Committee of the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) handed Russia a four-year suspension from international sporting events as punishment for a decade-long state-sponsored doping campaign designed to help its athletes achieve glory at the highest level. A year later, following an appeal, the case reached the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). Although CAS supported WADA’s findings, it decided to reduce the length of Russia’s ban to just two years. At first glance, the ruling seemed clear; no Russian team would be allowed to take part in any major international sporting events until the end of 2022, a period which notably includes the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.

However, CAS’ ruling left plenty of room for manoeuvre. Although ‘Russia’ will have to sit out this summer’s Olympics, Russian athletes can still take part, provided they adhere to some rather malleable additional regulations. First, instead of openly representing Russia, they will compete under the supposedly neutral name ‘ROC’, an acronym of ‘Russian Olympic Committee’, a disguise perhaps even less convincing than the unmarked uniforms worn by the ‘Little Green Men’ sent to annex Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

Second, they won’t be able to hear the Russian national anthem at any venues where the games are being held. Instead, after the International Olympic Committee refused to accept patriotic Soviet-era folk song ‘Katyusha’ as a replacement, ROC athletes will have to settle for listening to Tchaikovsky’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.1 on the podium, should they win gold in Japan.

But it’s the third of these restrictions that best explains the dramatic events which took place during that draughts showdown between Sadowska and Tansykkuzhina in Warsaw: CAS, under the influence of WADA, also banned the Russian flag from appearing at all major sporting events during the period of the suspension. Whether the World Draughts Final can be credibly considered a ‘major’ event is, of course, highly debatable. Nevertheless, it was the fear of facing the wrath of WADA, who had “requested action” over Tansykkuzhina’s illegal Russian tricolour that drove the Polish official to take matters, and the flag, into his own hands.

Tangled Up in Red, White and Blue

While it would be easy to dismiss the whole draughts affair as nothing more than a storm in a teacup, it’s worth considering what might happen should a similar incident occur in front of a much greater audience at this summer’s Olympic games in Tokyo. After all, when it comes to prestigious sporting events like the Olympics, there is no more important symbol for a country than its national flag.

But if gold medals were being handed out for finding loopholes in the rules, surely ROC would already be crowned Olympic champions. Because although the Russian tricolour itself is forbidden, the red, white and blue colours of which it comprises remain free to appear at the games. With that in mind, the ROC put on a special fashion show to reveal the team’s new Olympic uniforms. The red, white and blue outfits displayed on the catwalk left no doubt about who those wearing them will really be representing, with ROC chief Stanislav Pozdnyakov proudly announcing that the “national flag can be seen really obviously” on the athletes’ clothing. No wonder Travis T. Tygart, CEO of the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), described the sentence as “a catastrophic blow… to the integrity of sport”.

Days after her stunning victory in Warsaw, Tamara Tansykkuzhina arrived home in Ufa, capital city of her native Bashkortostan. There was no shortage of Russian flags at the airport, as a crowd of well-wishers gathered to greet her. Amongst them was Shamil Valeev, co-chair of the Bashkortostan branch of the country’s ruling coalition, the All Russia People’s Front (ONF). Speaking to local news reporters, Valeev praised Tansykkuzhina for showing “an example of how to properly defend the interests and dignity of our country.” Later, on his personal Instagram account, he shared a picture of himself posing alongside the newly crowned Women’s Draughts World Champion. The caption revealed that Valeev had also presented her with a very special gift; a commemorative Russian tricolour flag on behalf of “#teamputin”. 

Featured image: Capturing the flag / on Twitter
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