The scandal of systematic doping orchestrated by Russian government agencies and the Russian anti-doping body (RUSADA), involving the disposal of thousands of biological samples or their replacement with “clean” urine, has been widely reported.
For those unfamiliar with the global politics of sport and the ubiquity of doping, this may appear to be a story about a single rogue state. However, the line-up of failed, flawed, suspect or nefarious actors who wield power in global sporting bodies, anti-doping agencies and governments goes well beyond Russia, notwithstanding its status as the most systemic and sophisticated deceiver.
The sports journalist Nick Harris has already written a script about the Russian case that could be adapted for a television mini-series; the opening stanza to his recent op-ed points the finger of derision directly at the body who owns the Olympic Games:
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was aware Russia ran a state-sponsored doping programme in which the head of that nation’s WADA-accredited lab was a central figure as long ago as the first week of July 2013. I know this because I told them.
Faster, higher, stronger?
This well-known Olympic motto exalts performance excellence. The Games themselves extol the virtues of fair play.
Both of these aspirations appear to be compromised by the IOC’s chequered response to WADA’s McLaren report, which – aside from the Cold War – found unprecedented levels of state-organised doping in Russia.
While the Court of Arbitration for Sport recently ratified the IAAF’s unprecedented step of instituting a ban (with conditions) to the Russian track-and-field team, the IOC was reluctant to follow suit with a similar kind of ban for the entire Russian teams – Olympic and Paralympic.
Instead the IOC passed the buck – in this case the regulatory baton – to sport governing bodies, whose role now is to ascertain whether Russian athletes in their discipline areas are “clean” and free to take part in the Games. The criteria, as summarised by USAToday are:
Athletes must provide evidence to full satisfaction of their international federation, which should consider reliable international tests and the specifics of the sport and rules;
International federations seek from WADA the names and national federations implicated in the McLaren report and that nobody implicated in it be accepted to the Games; and
The Russian Olympic Committee may not enter any athletes who have ever been sanctioned for doping.
Olympic balancing act
The IOC president, Thomas Bach, argued that a nuanced response to the McLaren report was befitting:
I think in this way, we have balanced on the one hand, the desire and need for collective responsibility versus the right to individual justice of every individual athlete.
However noble-sounding, this strategy has left sport governing bodies to carry out investigations of their own members in a very short space of time, and to make judgements based on criteria imposed by the IOC.
WADA, which receives about half of its annual funding from the IOC, is publicly “disappointed” but privately seething that its impact on the so-called “fight against doping” has been diminished by the Olympic door remaining open to Russia.
Revisiting the sins of the past
There are two aspects to the IOC edict that have particularly puzzled.
First, it is not clear why the IOC wants to ban Russian athletes who have served doping bans in the past but are now free to compete under the WADA Code. There are several athletes from other countries with a similar status, but they are not being made ineligible.
Gregory Ioannidis, an expert in sport and the law, has questioned the legality of the IOC decision, and believes it may be overturned by a Court of Arbitration for Sport ad-hoc tribunal. Whether it meets in time to allow the Russian athletes to fly over and compete is another question.
Perhaps the biggest source of angst has been the IOC’s decision to ban the Russian athlete Yuliya Stepanova from the Games. She blew the whistle on practices of extortion and systemic drug-taking in her country. Subsequently, Stepanova has been in hiding, training as best she can with a goal of competing under the IOC flag.
Whereas the IAAF approved her participation, the IOC pulled its flag from the Russian, deeming her ineligible as a former doper. This ruling sends a stark message to others who might think of coming forward: do not do so, for you will be punished rather than embraced.
This is hardly the only example of low blows to those with a shrill whistle: the story of Steve Magness is a stark reminder of how countering corruption in sport is a dangerous business with many disincentives.
Ultimately, we are left to wonder whether organisations like the IOC – or for that matter FIFA – are capable of the principles of fair play they espouse, and which they demand of athletes.
Similarly, we might ponder whether nation states are fit and proper agents to manage anti-doping in their own backyards.
It is hard to recommend sport to a younger generation: they look like inheriting a broken system.