Sports doping: IOC finds the right course on Russia

Russia banned from competing in next year’s Winter Olympics in South Korea over doping allegations.

Russia was banned from the 2016 Paralympic Games [Issei Kato/Reuters]
Russia was banned from the 2016 Paralympic Games [Issei Kato/Reuters]

“Skating on thin ice” is a fitting description for the Russian doping scandal that led to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) banning Russia from competing as a team at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

The move brought to mind the IOC in a bobsled, hurtling down the track in a precarious run that could hardly have been trickier in spite of their expertise in political manoeuvring.

While the Russian Olympic Committee was suspended, the IOC said it would allow individual Russian athletes to compete “under strict conditions”. The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), on Wednesday, said it had received 22 appeals from Russian athletes against the bans.

But with the decision to allow some Russian athletes to compete under the Olympic Athlete from Russia (OAR) banner,  the IOC drew praise and criticism in equal measure.

If Russian competitors had been banned altogether, the IOC would have risked the wrath of an already agitated President Vladimir Putin, with whom they have somehow managed to maintain a relationship despite their own President Thomas Bach calling Russian doping “an unprecedented attack on the integrity of the Olympics”.

But if they had adopted a softer approach to Russia, critics would have been appalled and taken the IOC to task.

If a nation can’t be completely banned for poisoning and corrupting its entire $50bn Olympics to look strong, when can one ever be banned?

The answer: If that nation was weaker than Russia.

Imagine an African nation doping on that scale before a Summer Olympics. Would anyone from that nation have been allowed to compete?

Not just Russia

So where does this leave the Pyeongchang Winter Games, taking place in South Korea in February, and an Olympic movement that has been massively discredited by the poisoning of Sochi 2014?

It could be argued that fewer Russians means a greater chance of clean games. But please, let’s not fool ourselves that other nations don’t cheat too.

Many winter sports remain vulnerable to cheating. An anti-doping expert once told me: “It’s not dope-testing that catches dopers, it’s intelligence.”

By intelligence, the expert meant whistle-blowers like Grigory Rodchenkov, the man at the heart of the corrupt Sochi lab who exposed their enormous wrongdoing.

Will Russia recover?

Can Russia ever restore its place and reputation in sport? Eventually, perhaps.

Sochi 2014 and the 2018 football World Cup were meant to put the nation in the spotlight. That spotlight will eventually move on, giving Russia time to recover.

But this won’t happen until after the World Cup, which is tainted by the controversy of the bidding process, allegations of Russian team doping and the remarkable fact the head of the tournament – Vice President Vitaly Mutko – is now banned from the Olympic movement for his role in the Sochi Games doping scandal.

And let us not forget that Russian athletes are still banned from competing, while their entire team faces a ban from the Winter Paralympics, as it was from the Paralympics in 2016.

Has the Russian sports strategy backfired spectacularly?

It’s not that simple; it depends on what information you’re being fed and where you are consuming it from.

From inside Russia, people saw a show of sporting strength and a medal-fest followed by a continuing strategy of denial. 

Watching the biggest governing bodies in sport trying to deal with any crisis can be painful. The avoidance, the denials and the fudging. The desperate hope it will “all go away”.

But while FIFA ignored the ban on Mutko, reminding us some things will never change in Zurich (where FIFA’s head office is), the IOC managed to keep its bobsled on course. 

Nobody can accuse it of letting Russia “get away with it”.

The IOC’s ban-on-Russian-flag-but-clean-athletes-welcome decision could never satisfy everyone. The process will be messy and will take too much attention away from those who deserve it in Pyeongchang.

But none of us envied them having to negotiate this course. 

Source: Al Jazeera

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