Russia stays, and clean athletes scratch heads
If this turns out to be Thomas Bach’s defining moment, here’s what the leader of the International Olympic Committee will be remembered for: keeping Russia as part of the club, but losing the trust of thousands of athletes who thought that, maybe this year, they’d get the answers they’ve been looking for.
In a way, the IOC and its president may have saved the Games As We Know Them, with their decision Sunday not to ban the entire Russian team from the Rio de Janeiro Games. No less than Russian President Vladimir Putin was making references to the potential fracturing of the Olympic movement if his country was kicked out completely.
But the Games As We Know Them are now filled with wide-scale, unapologetic drug cheating, as was documented in a pair of independent reports that gave an unflinching look at a top-to-bottom doping program involving Russia’s government and trickling down to hundreds of the country’s athletes.
The IOC ultimately favored “individual justice” over “collective responsibility” — words Bach used repeatedly to describe the moral calculations of this first-of-its-kind judgment. And there were some legitimate arguments to be made about, say, the group of gymnasts or the dozens of clean athletes in any sport that shouldn’t be kicked out because of the misdeeds of others.
But, as Bach noted: “This might not please everybody.”
Where to start?
Maybe with those thousands of athletes who have tirelessly filled out “whereabouts” forms over the years, then allowed themselves to be woken in the dark of night, or met while out for dinner, by an agent tasked with collecting urine samples as part of the comprehensive out-of-competition-testing programs that exist in dozens of countries.
Maybe with those who’ve been directly cheated out of medals by a Russian doper.
“Eight years of my life as a professional runner, and my entire professional career has been a farce, basically,” American runner Alysia Montano said earlier this month, in tears after tripping and falling and failing to qualify for what would’ve been a chance to earn the Olympic medal that still hasn’t come her way.
While keeping the individual vs. collective argument at their disposal, IOC members also heard Sunday from Russian Olympic leader Alexander Zhukov, who urged them not to bow to “geopolitical pressure” and issue the blanket ban.
Clearly, this decision had every bit as much to do with politics as clean sports.
It’s why the IOC ended up with a handful of actions that, frankly, do not live up to the standards of what world anti-doping rules are trying to achieve.
— The IOC’s call to bar from Rio any Russian athlete who had previously served an anti-doping ban runs counter to a 2011 decision that made it impermissible to do that very thing. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that such a punishment amounted to double jeopardy. Zhukov said he didn’t agree with the latest IOC ruling but that Russia would not appeal it. That doesn’t mean individual athletes cannot. It has whiffs of a politically driven bargain.
— The IOC’s rejection of whistleblower Yulia Stepanova’s request to compete under a neutral flag may have been academic, since Stepanova was injured and no sure thing to line up. Bach said the IOC considered the timing of Stepanova’s information dump — after she’d been cast aside by the Russian team — along with her record of doping. Still, the message it sends, “is incomprehensible and will undoubtedly deter whistleblowers in the future from coming forward,” said Travis Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
— The IOC’s decision to let the 28 summer sports determine the eligibility of their athletes puts the federations in a nearly impossible situation. How, in 10 days, can any organization set reasonable parameters to determine who’s been operating clean and who hasn’t?
But those calls, Bach and the IOC ruled, are for others to make.
The one they did make keeps Russia engaged in the Olympics — not an altogether surprising result, considering the country recently spent $51 billion on the Sochi Games, which have now been proven to be as drug-tainted and corrupt as any in history.
It’s a result that falls short of the “toughest sanctions available,” which is what Bach promised when the latest report on Russia’s doping scandal came out last Monday.
“A sad day for clean sport” said Joseph de Pencier, CEO of the Institute for National Anti-Doping Organizations, which represents 59 agencies across the globe.
But a happy day for Russia.