Olympics Reputation Sinks, Part I: Russian Doping Scandal

Laxity on the part of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) toward performance-enhancing drugs is nowhere better illustrated than in the case of state-sponsored doping by Russia. It’s a long and twisted tale going back decades, but the McLaren Report, issued in 2016, made glaringly clear the massive doping of Russian athletes in many sports, particularly at the 2014 winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Last September, WADA lifted the suspension of the Russian national team, in a good-faith gesture intended to get cooperation from the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) to submit data and samples for WADA’s inspection. At this moment in mid-February 2019, the suspension remains lifted, despite:

  • RUSADA’s failure to provide data and samples by the December 31st date stipulated by WADA as being in compliance;
  • Now that, as of mid-January, the data and samples are finally in WADA’s possession, they have not yet been authenticated, a task expected to take months;
  • Russia has not admitted to state-sponsored doping, one of the conditions originally called for in order to put RUSADA in compliance and reinstate Russian athletes as part of a national team.

What part does the IOC play in this?

First, since half of WADA’s funding comes from the “Olympic Movement” supervised by the IOC, separating the policies of the two organizations is like trying to separate the policy of a magazine’s newsroom from the policy of a half-owner – it can be done, but it’s a fragile arrangement susceptible to collapsing under sufficient tension.

More overtly, in the midst of the wrangling between WADA and RUSADA over access to Russian data in January, IOC President Thomas Bach declared that the Russian Olympic Committee had “already suffered enough.” He was referring to the ban of the Russian national team from the 2018 Winter Games, wherein individual Russian athletes with clean records were permitted to compete on their own, but not under the national flag. In Bach’s words, “With its suspension from the Olympic Winter Games Pyeongchang 2018, the Russian Olympic Committee has served its sanction, while in other organizations procedures are still ongoing.”

Most observers inferred that Bach was thereby paving the way for Russian national team participation in the 2020 summer Olympics in Tokyo, barring a sensational breakout of the drug scandal.  The implication is that WADA should find a way either to clear RUSADA and the Russian team by July of 2020, or to keep the suspension of the Russian team lifted indefinitely.

If so, that would contravene the recent statement by WADA in late January, that if the Russian data were found to be inauthentic, WADA’s Compliance Review Committee (CRC) would “very likely” recommend that “no Russian officials, athletes or athlete support personnel will be permitted to participate in the 2020 Olympic or Paralympic Games.”

“Very likely” is not certainly.  Moreover, the IOC is not bound by a CRC recommendation.

Check out WADA’s full statement here.

IAAF standing firm, for the moment

As for “other organizations” Bach may have been referring to the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), which has stuck to its guns on banning Russia from international competition under IAAF control. Their firmness is bolstered by the desire to press down on the lid on their own doping problems. In December, the IAAF declared that the conditions for reinstatement were not only that RUSADA’s data and samples must be submitted and authenticated and Russia admit to state-sponsored doing, but also that Russia pay for the substantial costs incurred in dealing with the doping crisis.

Using classic stall tactics regarding payments, Russian Athletics Federation president Dmitry Shlyakhtin said, in December, “regulating our debts financially requires a lot of work and in-depth consideration. We need to draw up various legal documents and discuss the payment arrangements. We’re also talking with the IAAF about possibly paying in installments over six months.” This is Russia-speak for it could be a cold day in Hell before you ever get your money. Some gargantuan air conditioners will have to be hauled into Hell soon for there to be any chance that the Russian team will participate in the IAAF’s World Championships in Doha. They begin on September 28.

(The IAAF has allowed dozens of leading Russians to compete as neutrals if they can show an extensive history of passing drug tests. These include athletes such as Maria Lasitskene, who in 2019 will look to defend the high jump world title she won in 2017.)

The Olympics Curse of Bigness

The troubles the International Olympics are experiencing arise in part from sheer size: so many countries, so many sports, so many athletes, such huge audiences, such immense facilities. Its gigantic global reach and visibility make it difficult to single out any one country (e.g. Russia) for punishment, when other countries such as Kenya are also under suspicion–although in the latter, the case for state-sponsored doping is weaker (WADA concluded in 2018 that Kenyan doping in athletics is widespread, but it is opportunistic and not institutionalized).

The less visible IAAF, in contrast, has only track and field to deal with. The number of people and countries their rules and restrictions may upset is dwarfed by the numbers involved in all Olympic sports.

To be shut out of the IAAF puts only a small dent in Russia’s prestige on the global sports stage. Athletics is less than a fifth of the Russian Olympic commitment, as reflected in their medal count. Russia has Olympic teams in 24 sports in the summer games.  Of the 428 Olympic medals won by Russia in the summer games from 1996 through 2016, 62 (14%) are in athletics, 64 (15%) are in gymnastics, and 56 (13%) in wrestling. The remaining 57% of their medals are distributed among such sports as shooting (7%), fencing (6%), swimming (5%), etc.  (Statistics to be found in Wikipedia entry for Russia in the Olympics).

With stakes so high for Russia and the International Olympic Committee, the pressure is very high for WADA to give RUSADA a clean bill of health, straining credulity that it can be done fairly and completely. Much systematic deception has already been exposed. Such is the dilemma of habitual liars: even when they actually do tell the truth, many will not believe them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s