IOC’s ‘half-measure’ on Russian doping leaves great question unanswered

IOC president Thomas Bach comments on the decision not to ban Russia from the 2016 Rio Olympics.

So the great question remains unanswered.

Just what would it take for the International Olympic Committee to throw an entire country out of the Games for systemic, state-sponsored doping — not just a piddly little no-one-would-miss-them-in-the-Opening-Ceremony country, but one of the planet’s great sports powers?

More than this, apparently. More than a top-down program of PED use and cover-ups that in part read like something out of a bad spy novel (urine samples slipped through a “mouse hole” between the testing lab and a secret space inhabited by Russian scientists…). More than making a monkey out of WADA and the IOC right in the middle of the Sochi Olympics, a time and place where the anti-doping system is supposed to be at its most vigilant, its most sophisticated, its least pregnable.

More than the confirmation of suspicions dating farther back that the Russians aren’t all that interested in playing by the rules.

What all of that gets you in 2016, under the IOC leadership of Thomas Bach, is a chicken-hearted half-measure that is understandable from a purely pragmatic perspective — the legal ramifications of a total ban 12 days out from the 2016 Olympic Games would be difficult to predict, and there was the real possibility of a permanent schism in the Olympic movement/business if Russia, the country that spent tens of billions of dollars on the 2014 Games, was made a sports pariah state — but that is going to leave the rest of the planet shaking its head at the cynicism of it all.

Now, the buck has been passed to individual sports federations to make the call, employing a set of criteria that would protect athletes who can somehow prove that they are “clean”, while excluding anyone who has been previously sanctioned for doping, and throwing out any testing results generated by the tainted Russian system.

You can find something noble in all of that if you choose, interpreting the IOC’s decision as protecting those innocent Russian athletes who would have been punished for the crimes of others if a blanket ban had been imposed.

But it’s also true that, given the short timeline, given the near impossibility of proving anything one way or another definitively, athletes will march into the stadium in Rio under the Russian flag who benefited from the most comprehensive national doping scheme (that we know of…) since the end of the former East Germany. And as a result, other innocent athletes from other countries will be competing on a field that isn’t level and will be denied medals, denied top-10 finishes, denied fair play.

In other words, nothing has changed, or at least nothing much has changed. The Russian track and field team won’t be there, and the weightlifters may well be excluded, but soon enough all of this will pass, and by the time the world reassembles for the next Winter Olympics two years hence, it will be business as usual.

It is at times like this that war against drugs in sport, like other wars on other drugs, seems its most quixotic.

Remember that the Russians weren’t caught by the anti-doping police. As with BALCO, no one would have known what was happening had it not been for a couple of brave whistle-blowers. It was darned audacious to undermine a testing lab right in the middle of the Olympics, but you would only do that if you were pretty sure that you could get away with it. And there was reason for that confidence, given all of those Russian athletes who benefited from their doping program and then slipped through the testing net again and again and again.

The anti-doping battle may be necessary, at least for those who choose to look at sports as more than just an empty diversion, as more than a morally neutral entertainment option, but it is a battle that is not being won, largely because it flies in the face of human nature.

Cheating isn’t new. Trying to win by any means necessary didn’t begin in September, 1988. Trying to find a competitive edge, playing to the limits, breaking the rules and getting away with it, at least in some circumstances (doctoring a baseball for instance…), are celebrated in sports culture and the culture in general.

The lines between what is considered acceptable sports science and an unacceptable chemical advantage are often blurry and arbitrary. Governments, understanding the propaganda benefits of flag-waving, anthem-playing sporting events, will forever be tempted to invest in guaranteed wins. Athletes will always be tempted to compute the risk-reward equation, understanding the most important thing about PEDs — they work. And testing will always be two steps behind the cutting edge science.

None of that has deterred many people in sport from fighting the good fight.

But on days like this, even for the greatest idealists among them, it must seem particularly futile.

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