REPUTATIONAL SMACKDOWN

The Russia doping ban is a big black mark for the Olympics—no matter what Russia does next

The scale of the Russian doping scandal is gobsmacking. It’s the stuff of spy novels, with officials from the Russian anti-doping agency RUSADA teaming up with Russia’s Federal Security Service—successor to the KGB—to swap in clean urine samples during the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. Since the scheme was exposed by whistleblower Gregory Rodchenkov, two members of the Russian anti-doping agency dropped dead in early 2016. Both of them were relatively healthy and in their 50s.

And so the news that the International Olympic Committee has banned the Russian Olympic team from the 2018 games in Pyeongchang has the ring of justice. The Russian flag will not flap in South Korea; the Russian anthem will not fill the air. Russian athletes may compete if they are able to demonstrate that they’re clean, but only while wearing nation-neutral uniforms.

Like the doping scandal, the scope of this punishment is unprecedented. And whether Russians decide to boycott the games or swallow their pride and compete as neutrals, the reputation of the Olympics itself— especially that of the privileged sliver of the global 1% who run the games—faces a well-deserved smackdown.

The IOC’s penalty may strike some as bold, perhaps even harsh. But the truth is that Olympic barons backed themselves into a corner by failing to act sooner to squelch doping. The IOC has known about systematic doping in Russia since at least 2013, but has nevertheless acted with willful gullibility. In front of the press, the IOC claims it wants to stamp out doping. But in practice, it’s almost as if they think foot-dragging is an Olympic sport.

Now the committee’s hand has been forced at a low point in the Games’ history. Doping is only one problem—albeit a huge one—among many plaguing the Olympic Games, including chronic overspending, egregious green-washing, a pattern of leaving unused stadiums in their wake, and the militarization of the public sphere in the Olympic host city. In Pyeongchang, overall costs have doubled, from around $6 billion to over $13 billion. An ancient forest was chopped down to make way for an Olympic ski run, and ticket sales are lagging.

The IOC ruling, then, punishes the Olympic Games as well as Russia. If Russia athletes compete as in neutral uniforms, it will be a constant optic reminder of the corruption running rampant through the Olympic Games. And a Russian boycott of the Games could cause a major rift in Olympics Land. Russia is a huge player in the Olympics in general, but specifically the Winter Games. Also, the world would be deprived of many top-shelf athletes, including figure skater Yevgenia Medvedeva and speed skater Viktor Ahn.

In short, the Russian doping imbroglio couldn’t have come at a worse time for the IOC. And the Russians aren’t helping. Officials have portrayed the doping debacle as a Cold War 2.0 moment, depicting it as a Western conspiracy designed to undermine Russia. Russian president Vladimir Putin recently suggested that Russia’s testing positive for doping was part of an international scheme to bring down his country. After all, he noted, sports governing bodies are entwined in complex “relationships and dependencies,” “and the controlling stake is in the United States.” Alluding to upcoming elections in Russia in March 2018, where he is once again up eligible for the presidency, he added, “In response to our alleged interference in their elections, they want to create problems during the election of the president of Russia.”

Here in the US, we are conditioned to be receptive to the idea that Russia is a big boogeyman, ubiquitously lurking behind every scandal. Mitt Romney, who, it should be said, helped Salt Lake City across the Olympic finish line back in 2002, took to Twitter to both over-hype the IOC’s actions and take a shot at Russia:

It’s easy these days to waggle a sanctimonious finger at Russia. But historically, the US has hardly been a paragon of doping integrity. Exhibit A: Lance Armstrong. Exhibit B: Marion Jones. What’s different about Russia is the systematic audacity of its drug use. Still, the West needs to be careful not to slide into Russia-bashing auto-pilot. Many Russian athletes may not have had a real choice about whether to dope or not.

The Russian doping scandal isn’t going away. It promises to inflect this summer’s soccer World Cup in Russia. One report commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, or WADA, found numerous positive drug tests on Russian football players that were subsequently covered up. FIFA, the notoriously corrupt world governing body for soccer, is moving to address this at a glacial pace.

Beyond that, Vitaly Mutko, who now is a Russian deputy prime minster and the head of the World Cup organizing committee, has been directly implicated in the Sochi doping shambles, both as the Russian sports minister and as a member of the Russian Olympics Committee during the heyday of doping. Yesterday, the IOC banned Mutko “from any participation in all future Games.” The question is whether, given the state of the Olympics today, missing “future Games” is all that bitter a penalty.

Jules Boykoff is the author of three books on the Olympics, most recently Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics. He teaches politics at Pacific University in Oregon. Follow him on Twitter.

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