Russian athlete Ivan Kuliak was criticized for his “shocking behavior” by The International Gymnastics Federation on Saturday, after the 20-year-old gymnast wore the pro-Russian Z symbol on his uniform while standing on the podium.

Though The International Gymnastics Federation did not state specifically what about Kuliak’s behavior was being condemned, the statement came after he donned the symbol while accepting his bronze medal for his performance on the parallel bars. At the time, he was also standing next to Ukrainian gymnast ​Illia Kovtun, who won gold at the World Cup event in Doha, Qatar.

According to BBC News, the Z symbol has become a pro-war insignia on social media and around buildings in Moscow, Russia, for those who support the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russian forces reportedly use the “Z” on tanks and military vehicles to distinguish themselves from enemy troops.

“The International Gymnastics Federation confirms that it will ask the Gymnastics Ethics Foundation to open disciplinary proceedings against Ivan Kuliak following his shocking behavior at the Apparatus World Cup in Doha, Qatar,” a statement from the athletic organization read on Sunday.

Propaganda videos online have included the Z symbol and waived Russian flags in support of President Vladimir Putin. In Kazan, Russia, a hospice center of 60 children and staff stood outside and took a viral photo standing in a “Z” formation. Billboards and graffiti artists have also plastered the pro-war insignia all over the country.

A Russian hospice center stood outside to form the 'Z' symbol in solidarity with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Ukraine invasion
A Russian hospice center stood outside to form the ‘Z’ symbol in solidarity with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Ukraine invasion. Photo Credit: Instagram

“I don’t think that Ivan wanted to make a special demonstration,” Vasily Titov, head of the Artistic Gymnastics Federation of Russia, told local Russian reporters, “but we will support him in any case.”

“It was a violation of the uniform approved by the [The International Gymnastics Federation],” Titov acknowledged. “I think that they can punish, they can also remove us from participation. But we were already removed.”

The Gymnastics Ethics Foundation, which is currently investigating Kuliak’s “shocking behavior,” told CNN that they could not comment at this time due to the fact that the matter was ongoing.

Ivan Kuliak, who was banned from wearing or displaying the Russian flag, did not state why he chose to add the ‘Z’ to his leotard.

Ukraine’s 2016 Olympic parallel bars champion, Oleg Verniaiev, took to social media and wrote, “Of course, you will excuse me, but let the Russians not shout that sport is out of politics!”

“Congratulations to our guy, everything is in its place,” he continued. “Glory to Ukraine.”

Illia Kovtun, the Ukrainian athlete who stood next to Ivan Kuliak on the podium, has also not commented on the athlete pro-war insignia added to his uniform.

“Often with propaganda the simplest things catch on the quickest,” Royal United Services Institute’s Russian Research Fellow Emily Ferris told BBC News. The “Z” looks “rather intimidating and stark. From an aesthetic perspective, it’s a very powerful symbol.”

The Russian Department of Defense also posted photos on Instagram with the “Z” symbol, as well as the “V” for victory. The photos were captioned with “Za PatsanoV,” meaning “for the lads,” while another said “Sila V pravde,” translated to “strength in truth.”

Another theory believes that Russian forces are using the two letters to refer to the differences between Russia’s Eastern Forces (Z) and the Naval infantry (V).

Svetlana Khorkina, a female Russian gymnast and seven-time Olympic medalist, showed that she stood with Russia just a week prior to Kuliak’s demonstration, posting the “Z” symbol online with the caption: “A campaign for those who are not ashamed to be Russian.”

Sergey Karjakin, a former Russian chess champion, has also been banned from competitions after publicly supporting the invasion of Ukraine.

All Russian and Belarusian gymnasts have since been suspended from International Gymnastics Federation events following the recommendation of the International Olympic Committee. Russian athletes were banned from competing at the 2022 Paralympic Games in Beijing.