Russian Olympians face backlash after rally in support of Putin and Ukraine invasion

Russian President Vladimir Putin at a rally
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a rally March 18 commemorating the annexation of Crimea and backing the invasion of Ukraine.
(Mikhail Klimentyev / Pool Photo)

Russian Olympic athletes who participated in a rally last week in support of President Vladimir Putin and the invasion of Ukraine are facing a backlash, with one losing a sponsorship deal and facing a disciplinary investigation.

Medalists in cross-country skiing, gymnastics, figure skating and swimming gathered onstage at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on Friday as part of the concert and entertainment program accompanying Putin’s speech.

Olympic champion swimmer Evgeny Rylov reportedly attended the event, the sport’s governing body, FINA, told the Associated Press.


“FINA is deeply disappointed to note the reports regarding Evgeny Rylov’s appearance at the Luzhniki Stadium during Friday’s rally. We are investigating the matter further,” the governing body said in an email Tuesday.

Rylov has also lost his endorsement deal with swimwear manufacturer Speedo because of his involvement in the pro-Putin rally.

“Speedo can confirm that it has terminated the sponsorship of Evgeny Rylov with immediate effect,” the company said. “We condemn the war in Ukraine in the strongest possible way and stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine, our athletes and our teammates who have been impacted by the conflict.”

Moscow’s war machine includes a popular TV talk show whose host, Dmitry Kiselyov, takes on anyone who contradicts Russian President Vladimir Putin.

March 22, 2022

Speedo added that it would donate the remainder of Rylov’s sponsorship fee to UNHCR, the United Nations agency caring for refugees.

Most of the athletes, including Rylov, were pictured wearing jackets with a “Z” on the chest at the rally. The letter isn’t part of the Russian alphabet but has become a symbol of support for Russian troops after it was used as a marker on Russian armored vehicles operating in Ukraine.

Other Olympic athletes in attendance included figure skaters Victoria Sinitsina, Nikita Katsalapov, Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov; cross-country skier Alexander Bolshunov; and rhythmic gymnastic twin sisters Dina and Arina Averina.


The athletes stood onstage as the national anthem was played, in an apparent response to the fact that Russian teams at last year’s Summer Olympics in Tokyo and this year’s Winter Olympics in Beijing did not have the anthem at their ceremonies because of years of doping scandals.

Facing stiff resistance in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin is using language that recalls the rhetoric of Stalin’s show trials of the 1930s.

March 18, 2022

The rally Friday was held on the anniversary of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea, with patriotic songs and praise for troops and Moscow-backed separatists.

“Not so long ago we supported them in this difficult Olympic season,” Ukrainian ice dancer Oleksandra Nazarova wrote on Instagram last week with a picture of four Russian skaters taking part in the rally, and “now they support the war against us and our country.”

Nazarova and partner Maksym Nikitin are both from Kharkiv, a mostly Russian-speaking city in northeastern Ukraine that has been subjected to intense bombardment by Russian forces.

Since the invasion, dozens of sports have banned Russian and Belarusian athletes from their events after the International Olympic Committee recommended they be expelled from competition. Belarus has been a staging ground for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Times’ Marcus Yam, no stranger to war photography, gives a first-person account from Ukraine.

April 8, 2022

Swimming authorities had said they would allow Russians and Belarusians to compete “in a neutral capacity” but hardened their stance Wednesday with a full ban from the world championships. But Rylov said Wednesday on Instagram he would boycott the swimming world championships in June and July “as a sign of support” for Russian athletes who were barred from other competitions.


FINA also said Russia has now withdrawn from all international competitions.

There is a precedent for a Russian competitor being personally punished for supporting government policies. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak is facing a disciplinary hearing for wearing a “Z” symbol on the podium next to a Ukrainian competitor, and chess player Sergey Karjakin was suspended for six months Monday for social media posts proclaiming fervent support for Putin and Russian troops.