Ukrainian gymnast Illia Kovtun shook the hand of the silver medalist he’d just beaten as the two athletes stood on the podium Saturday to accept their medals. He did not extend the same courtesy to the bronze medalist on his left.
Ivan Kuliak, a 20-year-old Russian gymnast, was wearing a white “Z” shape on his chest.
Although the letter “Z” does not exist in the Russian alphabet, the symbol is quickly emerging as a way for Russians, following “a propaganda campaign,” to show support for invading Ukraine and rally around a new nationalism, an expert said.
The International Gymnastics Federation, the sport’s global governing body, said it will request a disciplinary investigation into what it called “shocking behaviour” from Kuliak.
Regardless, the Taishan World Cup Artistic Gymnastics in Doha, Qatar, was one of the last international events in which Kuliak can compete. Starting Monday, all Russian and Belarusian athletes are banned from participating in its competitions, the federation announced Friday.
Images of “Z” shapes have been seen across Russia in recent weeks. In the days leading up to the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, white “Z” symbols started appearing in photos of Russian tanks and other equipment as the military prepared to attack, Task & Purpose reported.
Some defense experts say the markings are a way for Russian troops to avoid friendly fire by distinguishing their military equipment from Ukraine’s, which has similar-looking tanks, according to Task & Purpose. Other experts say the symbol could be used within the Russian military to differentiate where various units were supposed to go after the initial invasion, the Independent reported.
“Often these symbols will be location-based – they will be communicating where a unit is heading,” Michael Clarke, former director of the Royal United Services Institute, a defense think tank, told the Independent.
Now the “Z” image has become popular among Russians following its use during the invasion, said Kamil Galeev, a former Wilson Center fellow who researched Russian identity politics from Moscow. It follows a state-led “propaganda campaign to gain popular support for their invasion of Ukraine,” Galeev wrote Sunday in a lengthy Twitter thread.
“[This] symbol invented just a few days ago became a symbol of new Russian ideology and national identity,” he added.
Photos published by the Associated Press on Sunday from a pro-military rally in Volgograd, Russia, show cars parked to form the shape of a “Z.” Others show stickers on car windows featuring an orange and black “Z” with the message “For Ours” in support of Russian forces.
The orange and black “Z” marries new and old symbols signifying support for the Kremlin. The color scheme was the informal symbol of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, The Washington Post reported, and was later used in 2014 by separatists as a way to show allegiance to Moscow during Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
The “Z” image now appears on signs and buildings in Russia. On one display in St. Petersburg, the symbol appeared with the message “We don’t leave ours,” according to the AP.
While the investigation into Kuliak centers on a possible pro-invasion message, other Russian athletes have made public displays in opposition of the attack.
A day after the invasion, Russian tennis player Andrey Rublev wrote “No War Please” on a camera lens at a championship tournament in Dubai. Around the same time, a member of the Russian national soccer team voiced his opposition to the invasion in an Instagram post that had racked up more than 140,000 likes.
In the post, Fedor Smolov wrote, “No to war!!!” next to a broken heart emoji and the Ukrainian flag.