Russia’s doping scandal: Keeping politics out of the arena

Vladimir Putin: Clean athletes shouldn't be punished for the actions of those who take banned drugs.

Vladimir Putin: Clean athletes shouldn't be punished for the actions of those who take banned drugs.

AP
With Russia currently at the center of an international outrage over the results of a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) investigation alleging large-scale doping among its athletes, there is a very real possibility that the country may be barred from participating in the 2016 Rio Olympics. But while Russia’s doping problem clearly needs to be addressed, punishing the entire nation would also deprive innocent athletes and fans alike.

The latest scandal involving large-scale allegations of Russian athletes using performance-enhancing drugs in international competitions may end up not only with the culprits being named, blamed and stripped of their titles, but with Russia as a country being suspended and banned from participating in the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil.

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) vote 22-1 in favor of suspending the Russian Athletics Federation (ARAF) – an unprecedented punishment for doping offences in the history of the Olympic movement – came as a warning to the Russian sports authorities, who are suspected of state-sponsoring doping.

What is at stake after the unanimous decision by the IAAF council, taken on Nov. 13, is not only the participation of Russian athletes in the Rio Olympics, including those who have never taken performance-enhancing drugs. Such a ban would not only deprive Russia’s athletes of the right to compete in the most popular global sports event, but would also dismay the country’s sports fans, who would be dispossessed of the joy of living through the thrill of the contest with their favorites.

Moreover, the whole story relates to the national pride of Russia as a global sports superpower, which hosted its own Winter Olympics for the first time in February 2014 in Sochi. While some described the Sochi Olympics as “$50 billion extravaganza,” others saw it not only as a global PR exercise but also as an attempt to consolidate Russia’s leading position in the sporting world.

In response, Russia’s Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko has showed a commendable determination to do his homework and tighten doping control to comply with IAAF rules so as not to miss the Olympics Games in Brazil: “In three months we will once again go to the international federation to present ourselves as compliant with its standards. We hope our team will be reinstated,” he told Reuters.

It probably required personal courage on the part of Mutko not to get dragged into the blame game with the IAAF and assume the responsibility for removing this roadblock for Russia’s athletes going to thrill Rio with their records.

He was echoed by Alexander Zhukov, Russia’s Olympic committee head: “The Russian Olympic Committee is firmly convinced that honest athletes must participate in the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. At the same time everyone who was involved in the use of illicit drugs, and contributed to this, should take full responsibility,” said Zhukov.

While the pursuit to uphold integrity in sports is commendable, details of the doping investigation in progress raise questions about the validity of selective condemnation of Russia. First and foremost, why was Russia singled out, leaving other potential culprits in the shade, including the International Association of Athletics Federations?

The reason lies largely with the revelations made public last year by the German Das Erste documentary broadcast by ZDF/ARD and The Times of London. Titled “Top-secret Doping: How Russia makes its Winners,” the exposé laid out in detail the institutionalized nature of doping in the country via recorded interviews, evidence of clandestine payments, and reference to what was termed as “highly suspicious blood-test data.”

A barrage of righteous indignation in Western media in response to the documentary and subsequent investigation by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) saw calls for Russia as a nation to be taken to task for allegedly “state-sponsoring” cheating at a certain laboratory whose functionaries were found to have been taking money to cover up positive tests.

Yet despite the seriousness with which the scandal is being taken by Russian sports officials, many in the country are looking at the snowballing doping scandal in the context of the decade-long debate on where exactly big sports ends and big politics starts. At the heights of the Cold War there were attempts to hijack sports and fit them into a political agenda of superpower rivalry. One of the textbook cases was the United States boycotting the 1980 Moscow Olympics with the formal justification of the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan.

Three year later, U.S. President Ronald Reagan dubbed the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire” amid the tensest period in the Cold War. Consequently, Moscow retaliated by pulling out of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles with 16 Soviet allies joining the boycott.

It is unclear whether any of the sides scored any propaganda points as a result of this tit-for-tat. What is clear is that sports were victimized. “The Soviet boycott was an enormous disappointment because it meant that the athletes were taking a beating again. It was just like the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games: the athletes were the only ones to be penalized,” Los Angeles Organizing Committee Vice President Anita DeFrantz said at that time.

In a remarkable display of defiance, the British Olympic Association (BOA) chose to ignore the letter by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher calling on it to join the U.S.-led boycott. The BOA voted to send athletes to Moscow, including those sports where the British traditionally excelled, like swimming, yachting, equestrian, and fencing.

Today, 35 years down the road, the stance taken by the then BOA chairman Sir Denis Follows still constitutes a powerful message. Talking on the part of sports associations of Britain he said: “We believe sport should be a bridge, and not a destroyer.”

However, on this occasion it is difficult to draw a link between the abuse of sports ethics and politics, as was emphasized in an interview with Troika Report by sports lawyer Valery Fyodoreyev of the international law firm CMS.

“It must be related only to sports. I can’t say that Russian athletes have been subject to a biased attitude. In the past, sportspersons from other countries have been disqualified as well, for instance, athletes from Greece. However, given the ongoing sanctions against Russia in the economic and diplomatic field, one cannot shrug off the suspicion that there is a political context. Yet, as a lawyer who is dealing with sports issues, I would not see politics as the core motive of the decision to suspend our athletes.”

– Yelena Isinbayeva, twice Olympic champion and a renowned sports figure, has called on the international authorities to target the guilty but spare those athletes whose integrity has never been compromised. Is this a lone voice shouting in the wilderness?

“I would say that. After all, it is a ‘temporary’ suspension from all contests held under the jurisdiction ofthe International Association of Athletics Federations. By the time the Olympics are around the corner, the suspension could be lifted. If not, the athletes could participate in the games in Brazil but, unfortunately, not under the Russian flag. Only in their personal capacity under the Olympic flag.”

There can be no doubt that the fraudsters who abuse the principles of fair competition, notably when it comes to using illicit substances to better their performance, should be penalized. Russia's Olympic Committee has pledged to collaborate with the IOC, WADA and national Olympic committees from other countries and sports federations in the drive to “eradicate doping,” as it was worded in the official statement.

Yet the present scandal should not be used for any purposes other than uncovering the truth and cleansing sports from unbecoming practices. The Olympics are a hallowed shrine to sports and should remain free of political messages and reciprocal retaliations – practices that only make victims of athletes and sports fans alike.

The opinion of the writer may not necessarily reflect the position of RBTH or its staff.

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