After IOC's historic ruling, it's time the spotlight include the powers that be
It took a massive battering ram of evidence to break down resistance in the castle, but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has acted, conferring on Russia the distinction of being the first-ever nation suspended from the Olympic Games for doping.
There is something constructive in Tuesday's message, especially for those athletes around the world with nothing to hide, who make themselves available at all hours and on all occasions to donate blood and urine.
The gist is that politicians and administrators and other folks who like to dress up for the biennial party can be disinvited, discredited and held responsible. It's not quite the same thing as being suspended from competition because of a tainted supplement, regardless of intent. That's called strict liability, and it remains to be seen whether the suits who run sports are ever held to the principle as rigorously as the athletes who play sports.
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That is particularly necessary with regard to the international winter sports federations with historical Russian influence. They have the option to suspend member teams and sanction officials, and with World Cup competition in full swing, time is of the essence if they don't want to risk more compromised podiums.
So after two years of semantic squabbling about whether Russia's corrupt system was "state-sponsored," the IOC informed a flock of officials up to and including Vitaly Mutko, the former head of the sports ministry and current deputy prime minister of the country, that they are not welcome on the premises in Pyeongchang next February. Mutko's punishment has been cast as a forever ban. In a relevant aside, nothing at the moment prevents him from sitting in the VIP box a few months hence, when Russia hosts an event with, let's be honest, far more global appeal than the Winter Games -- soccer's World Cup.
The IOC was prodded into the unprecedented suspension of the Russian Olympic Committee only after years of whistleblowers being ignored or disbelieved, after the toothlessness of the anti-doping infrastructure in the face of a rogue actor became apparent, and after millions of dollars were poured into investigations that might have been avoided or shortened had certain flashing red lights been heeded.
But aside from its obvious geopolitical weight, Russia is a regular and extravagant host of international sporting events. It was hard to contemplate biting the hand that feeds that system. Worth noting: The IOC levied a $15 million fine to cover the cost of the past three years of detective work and to shore up anti-doping efforts, but no mention was made of compensation for athletes who lost out on medals, bonuses and endorsement income.
This is a ban* with several asterisks, and it's too early to say how it will play out. As Johann Koss, the Olympic speedskating champion who helped found the FairSport organization, devoted to whistleblower protection and athletes' rights, put it: "We're trying to analyze what's in the small print."
- The Russian Olympic Committee is suspended from now until the final evening of the Pyeongchang Winter Games, but individual athletes who receive clearance to compete will wear uniforms that say "Olympic Athlete From Russia" (OAR), a strong context clue. The Russian flag won't appear at the Opening Ceremonies Feb. 9, but it might fly 16 days later at the Feb. 25 Closing Ceremony if OAR athletes observe proper decorum (and, presumably, if none test positive). These concessions, clearly crafted to stave off a boycott, carry the whiff of temporary amendments to country club bylaws. National identity equals ego on this stage, and ego will be partially served.
- IOC president Thomas Bach said "every effort" will be made to hold reallocated medal ceremonies in Pyeongchang for athletes knocked off the podium by Russia's methodical sabotage at Sochi 2014. That would be laudable and long overdue recognition, in contrast to the lengthy waits and low-profile celebrations many athletes have settled for. But the rulings on disqualified Russian medalists have just rolled in. A total of 22 athletes, nine of them medalists, have filed appeals, with a scant 10 weeks for their cases to be heard by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
- Athletes who want to make a case to compete will be evaluated by an IOC panel using criteria that was broadly described rather than specifically spelled out Tuesday. Will those criteria be transparent? The IOC made a pretty big deal over due process for athletes when it was arguing for "individual justice" over "collective responsibility" before its decision to let most of the Russian delegation compete in Rio. It would be good to know what that individual justice actually entails.
The process for clearing Russian athletes to compete will be overseen by a panel of experts selected by the IOC from the alphabet-soup world of sport and anti-doping. This is an improvement over the pre-Rio chaos, where international federations, toting the baggage of vested interest, were tasked with that. But it will still raise questions that can only be answered by publishing the standards.
Here's a prediction: We'll see lots more Russian figure skaters than cross-country skiers in Pyeongchang. That may well be supported and justified by testing history and other investigative evidence, but it's also coincidentally convenient for Olympic marketing. By early February, it will be interesting to see the percentage of Russian athletes cleared to compete compared to Rio.
"The exception should not overtake the rule," said U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart. If it were up to him, the panel would require a record of five to seven recent out-of-competition tests, a longitudinal analysis of all tests on record, a search of the Moscow lab's 2012-15 database, recently acquired by the World Anti-Doping Agency, and a sworn statement.
Tuesday put more pages on the record in the paper trail against Russian sport. They all point to the same conclusion: The digging isn't nearly done. There has been considerable focus on eliciting an apology from Russia, or at least a real acknowledgement of responsibility. It seems infinitely more useful at this point to be shown rather than told.