Russia cranked up a state-sponsored, industrial-scale doping operation ahead of the 2014 Sochi Games worthy of its own gold medal.
It swept up more than 1,000 athletes and stretched from lowly lab technicians to the highest reaches of the nation’s sports ministries. And despite getting busted twice since, it was never really shut down. What’s clear is that someone, or several people very near the top of the sporting pyramid there, believes winning is a lot more important than “clean” sport.
The first time they caught on, Olympic officials ordered the Russians to keep their flag, anthem and junket-loving officials – but not necessarily their athletes – out of the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang. Here’s how lasting an impression that made: another one of their labs got busted not long after, this time for tampering with the very data that was supposed to prove things had changed.
Handed a do-over, the pooh-bahs in charge of the Olympics proved they hadn’t changed much, either. Instead of telling Russian athletes not to bother showing up, something that might spark real outrage there, they opted for tough love again.
Based on the recommendation of the World Anti-Doping Agency, Russia’s flag and anthem – but again, not its athletes – will be barred from international sports’ biggest arenas for the next four years. The ban begins with next summer’s Tokyo Olympics and extends through the 2022 World Cup and Winter Games in Beijing – assuming the Russians don’t get busted between now and then.
You could almost hear glasses clinking at the Kremlin during Monday’s announcement.
“While being tough on the authorities, this recommendation avoids punishing the innocent and instead stands up for the rights of clean athletes everywhere,” said Jonathan Taylor, the British lawyer who headed the WADA committee that set the punishment.
Not really. But if that rationale sounds familiar, it should. It’s essentially the same one International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach trotted out when he let Russia off the hook ahead of the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Instead of a blanket ban, he handed off the tough decisions on which Russian athletes should be allowed to compete to individual sports federations. Many of those organizations rely on rubles to pay the rent and had a million more reasons to worry about reprisals than the independently wealth swells at the IOC ever did.
Not surprising, Russia sent a nearly full team to Rio, and even stripped of its flag and anthem, still mustered the third-biggest delegation in Pyeongchang. Even less surprising, the first Russian athlete to compete in those 2018 Winter Games, mixed doubles curler Alexander Krushelnitsky, failed a doping test, got disqualified and had to hand back his bronze medal.
One problem is that dopers, like burglars, rarely get caught in real time. Just last month, four U.S. sledders got their medals from Sochi upgraded retroactively. Unless something changes, those medals won’t be worth the metal they’re stamped on.
To be fair, every member nation of the Olympic “family” has some dopers on its team, or at least the ones serious about winning something do. But no nation this side of the old East Germany has tried to do it on the same scale as the Russians. There’s no reason to believe that will change until the punishment fits the crime.
But the Russians are not the only ones who have to decide whether to really buy into “clean” sports – though “cleaner” sports would be a more accurate description for these times. It’s the folks who are selling it and supposed to be enforcing it, even while getting rich in the bargain. That happens to be the IOC at the moment, because they’re in the spotlight.
But you don’t have enough fingers on both hands to count the number of big-time sports wrestling with the same problem. Science has made it a fact of life at the top. They all have similar rules against and no shortage of rules-breakers, too.
And so somewhere down the road, the people in charge of the rest of the alphabet soup that governs international sports – the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, FIFA and even FIDE, the international chess federation – will get more than enough chances to make a stand for clean sport.
Here’s hoping they show more backbone than the IOC did.
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