TORONTO – Ignore all of the International Olympic Committee’s bureaucratic talk of due process and proportionate justice in punishing Russia for its staggering doping operation, because the only thing that really matters is whether the judgment rendered Tuesday establishes a real deterrent.
There’s no way to now make whole the hundreds of athletes cheated by the brazen and audacious plots that fuelled Russian athletes through the 2012 Summer Games in London and, more grotesquely, at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. The IOC can retroactively reset the standings and the record books, but the moments and financial opportunities stolen from deserving competitors can never be restored.
In banning the Russian Olympic Committee but not its athletes that can prove themselves clean from the upcoming 2018 Games in Pyeongchang as the penalty for those transgressions, the IOC delivered a targeted attack on the system that led what president Thomas Bach described as an “unprecedented attack on the integrity of the Olympic Games.”
No officials from the Russian sports ministry will be accredited for Pyeongchang, Vitaly Mutko – the former minister of sport during the 2014 Sochi Olympics who is now deputy prime minister – is banned from all future Olympics and, of note to hockey fans, KHL president Dmitry Chernyshenko, the former CEO of the Sochi’s organizing committee, was banned from the Co-ordination Commission for the 2022 Games in Beijing.
Still, for countries determined to create the propaganda boost a big Olympic haul can provide, that may be a small price to pay. To get to this point, it’s taken three different investigations – with the one commissioned by the IOC and led by former Switzerland president Samuel Schmid cited Tuesday – a bevy of brave whistleblowers, former Moscow anti-doping lab head Grigory Rodchenkov key among them, and a wave of pressure, including from WADA, to bring down the hammer.
The IOC’s due process is an insane amount of due process.
Doping tests and sanctions haven’t provided enough of a deterrent for those intent on cheating, so it’s reasonable to wonder if Tuesday’s decision, harsh as it is, will be enough. Given concern about the potential implications a blanket ban of Russia might have had on the entire enterprise, the punishment seems designed to do just enough to satisfy everyone, neat and tidy with the Games two months away.
“There’s no perfect solution but I think this was well reasoned, it’s constructive and I think it was essential to move forward on clean and ethical sport, to make the changes that we need,” said Tricia Smith, the former rower and Canadian Olympic Committee president.
“It wasn’t just about the athletes, it was about the leadership as well and it was made very clear in the press conference by Mr. Schmid that you can’t just turn a blind eye to this, you have responsibilities and so I think it did send a real message, that the whole community, the whole system that’s operating in Russia is being sanctioned.”
That’s a good start, but as longtime Canadian IOC member and World Anti-Doping Agency founding president Dick Pound told Sportsnet on Monday, this isn’t a time for half-measures.
Allowing Russians to compete under the name “Olympic Athlete from Russia” while carrying the Olympic flag only “gives the Russians another chance to throw a hissy fit and withdraw, rather than be excluded,” he said. “I think it’s important to get that right.”
Collective punishments are unfair, but in leaving no one unscathed, it would have raised the stakes in what countries intent on wide-scale doping have to lose. Athletes are, in large measure, products of their environments and it’s incredibly difficult for them to reject coaches and officials preaching an illicit approach.
As Canadian Olympic women’s hockey star Hayley Wickenheiser, a member of the IOC’s Athletes Commission, said in a statement she posted to Twitter, “It is not lost on many clean athletes that Russian athletes who were part of this system may have had no choice but to comply.”
But discerning who was genuinely coerced into cheating and who volunteered for it eagerly can be nearly impossible and a blanket ban would ensure no dopers who slip through the cracks get to compete.
Smith, a four-time Olympian who won silver in 1984, is more sympathetic.
“Athletes understand that athletes don’t create these systems,” she said. “I competed in the ‘80’s against the East Germans – they never caught any of them. We know now, there are records of the system that was in place, and many of those athletes didn’t have a choice. It’s really important and it sends a really strong message that the leadership was addressed in this decision.”
To compete at the 2018 Olympics, Russian athletes will need to be invited and must never have been disqualified for any anti-doping violation; undergone all pre-Olympic testing recommended by the Pre-Games Testing Task Force; and undergone other testing to ensure a level playing field.
Should any win gold, the Olympic anthem will be used, as opposed to the Russian anthem.
The Russians may yet, as Pound suggested, withdraw on their own in protest.
When asked about the possibility, Bach said, “I don’t see any reason there for a boycott by the Russian athletes because we allow the clean Russian athletes to participate, to show there are clean athletes in Russia. In this way, we think that these clean Russian athletes can be more about building a bridge into the future of a cleaner sport than erecting a new wall between Russia and the Olympic movement.”
It’s a noble notion befitting the idealism that’s supposed to be at the heart of the Olympics. But it’s the Russians who burned the bridge and put up a wall, and it should be on them to rebuild the connection.