The International Olympic Committee’s (IOC’s) decision to ban Russia from the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang for its “unprecedented attack on the integrity of the Olympic Games and sport” proves that you can’t keep politics out of the sport. This is arguably the most overt expression of political intervention in the sport in history — and the history of political involvement in sport is as long as the history of organised sports itself. Despite the flat denials of IOC President Thomas Bach, it is not possible to disentangle the decision to ban Russia from the other issues that have turned the nation into the world’s pariah.
Russia has been accused of interfering with the 2016 American presidential election, which US intelligence has determined was conducted to help Trump. Allegations that the Kremlin was involved in the UK’s 2016 Brexit referendum campaign are being taken seriously by almost everyone in Britain, including its prime minister. It’s been reported that a hacking team known as Fancy Bears — with links to Russia’s secret service — broke into the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) database and published medical records of numerous high-profile athletes — including Australians, Americans and Brits. Cumulatively, these unsupported claims have made it possible for us to believe that Russians are capable of deeds that would make the Borgias envious.
The IOC ban represents a perversion of natural justice, penalising athletes, many of whom, as far as we know, have not used illegal doping and have not recorded positive tests. If the makeshift “Olympic Athlete from Russia” (OAR) designation is designed to placate observers who think the ban unjustifiable, it will not work. The exemption offered to athletes who can somehow prove they are clean and wish to compete, not as Russians, but as neutral participants, is inadequate; they will be under intolerable pressure not to compete without the imprimatur of Russia. This is rough justice.
Russia’s “state-sponsored doping” program was identified by Canadian law professor Richard McLaren, who said that he had found “a cover-up that operated on an unprecedented scale” in Russia. Much of McLaren’s evidence emerged from the testimony of Grigory Rodchenkov, a former Moscow anti-doping laboratory director who turned whistleblower and defected to North America (hardly an objective source).
McLaren also said that he had also been able to confirm that urine samples, which had been taken from Russian athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and at other major championships, had been exchanged for clean urine by using small metal rods to break open the supposedly tamper-proof bottles. They were carried out by Russia’s state security service, it was alleged.
There’s been an unquestioning acceptance of McLaren’s finding without much probing. Apart from Rodchenkov’s statements, the other evidence appears inferential and largely uncorroborated. In another social climate in a different era, McLaren’s report would have met with scepticism or, at very least, a demand for proof. Not today.
Let me provide further context to the doping allegations. Russia is far from being the only place in the world where athletes use doping, of course. In fact, the challenge is to find anywhere where performance-enhancing drugs are not habitually used by athletes from across the whole spectrum of sports. Unsurprisingly, with a population of nearly 145 million, Russia was the biggest offender in 2016. Russian athletes generated 148 anti-doping rule violations, followed by Italy with 123, India with 96, then Belgium and France, both 91. Turkey, Australia and China are also in the top 10 offenders.
Five countries, including distance-running powerhouses Kenya and Ethiopia, have been placed on a doping watch list, meaning they are being closely watched because of evidence that has surfaced about less-than-robust anti-doping procedures in those countries. Jamaica has also been under increased scrutiny by the International Association of Athletics Federations.
So why has Russia been singled out? Obviously, the global political atmosphere has made it easier to make even the wildest accusations sound plausible. But then again, why does sport wish to make such a colossal spectacle of laundering its own dirty linen? This is where the political intrigue takes on a commercial character.
Sport today is, as everyone realises, not simply business, but a globally gigantic business. The media have ensured that every major sports event in the world is broadcast extensively. Advertisers realise the enormous potential of sport for drawing consumers to their television sets, smartphones and iPads. So do sponsors, such as Coca-Cola, Toyota, Samsung, McDonalds and Visa, who with other “partners” (as sport prefers to call its benefactors) pay handsomely to have their brand publicly associated with the sport. The suspicion grew that sport in general, and the Olympics, in particular, had become inured to doping and had made peace with the reality that it was never be extirpated.
In recent decades, the millions have mounted up. For example, Panasonic last year paid $350 million for an eight-year, four-Olympic Games sponsorship. But the companies have grown uneasy with the doping violations. After all, what brand wants its products associated with a subject as unwholesome as drugs?
The sport needed to show good intent to its sponsors. It wanted a sacrifice. Russia didn’t actually bare its throat, but, when Das Erste, a German television channel, screened a documentary in 2014 that claimed as many as 99 per cent of Russian athletes are guilty of doping, it started an investigative trail that led to McLaren’s research and, ultimately, to the ban. I write “ultimately,” though there is no way of knowing when this case will end. On December 6, the Court of Arbitration for Sport said it had registered appeals by 22 Russian athletes against their disqualifications from the 2014 Sochi Olympics for doping. It’s conceivable — though probably not likely — that the court will, during its deliberations, solicit so far undisclosed evidence from McLaren. The geopolitical climate militates against this solicitation, of course.
More likely is that the court will turn down the appeals; since there is no further right of appeal. The games begin in February 2018 and Russia, one of the world’s forces in winter sports, will not be there. It will be like a Terminator movie without Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It doesn’t require cynicism to detect a miscarriage of justice: Just an analytical perspective on a case that is surely the most glaring example of the intrusion of politics into sport. Russia, to use a phrase of today, has been thrown under the bus.