The goal all along, or so the Olympic leaders say, has been fairness. And also — that notion of protecting the “innocent” Russian athletes who must be out there somewhere.
But what’s clear to anyone who has followed even a second of the Russian doping saga, now in its fifth year and showing no signs of ending, is that “fair” went out the window a while ago. Gone with it are any viable ways of deciphering who’s innocent and who’s not anymore.
The mission of protecting those stated goals wasn’t subverted by the World Anti-Doping Agency’s decision Monday to not issue a blanket ban on the Russians for next year’s Olympics. Rather, it died in the summer of 2016, when IOC President Thomas Bach did the same thing before the Rio Olympics. Back then, Bach introduced the need for a balance between “collective responsibility and individual justice” among the Russians who cheated, organized the cheating or were just caught in the middle of the whole thing.
That turn of phrase is the underpinning of this entire affair, a bumper-sticker slogan that will once again be proven to be a misleading canard in the aftermath of WADA’s latest attempt at punishment.
WADA, nothing more than a rubber-stamp extension of Bach’s IOC since his 2016 declaration, approved sanctions Monday that it insisted showed a “determination to act resolutely in the face of the Russian doping” — specifically, proof that Russia tampered with data it was supposed to hand over to prosecute athletes caught in the doping scheme.
Without the full-blanket ban, however, all it is is talk.
In the spirit of fairness, or so WADA reasoned, “innocent” Russian athletes should not be penalized for the actions of their country’s most sinister doping plotters.
Sounds fair, on paper. But in reality, it’s (more of) a disaster in the making.
Part of WADA’s reasoning for not instituting the blanket ban was to give a chance for “innocent” Russians to compete provided, among other caveats, that “there are no positive findings reported for them in the database and no data relating to their samples has been manipulated.”
But according to WADA’s own investigation, there are 145 cases in the database — handed over a few years ago by a whistleblower — that have been manipulated or deleted.
Just imagine how busy the Court of Arbitration for Sport — another bought-and-paid-for offshoot of the IOC — will be in handling appeals from Russians whose names are among those 145. Those athletes will find themselves involved in cases that tampering, according to WADA’s own investigators, has “materially prejudiced (authorities’) ability to pursue.”
WADA’s inability to back up these cases, thanks to some malicious handiwork by agents of the Russian government who were destroying the data, will weaken, if not outright obliterate, the case for any sanctions against these athletes.
“In part, it’s why they needed to put a full-blanket suspension on,” said Travis Tygart of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. “At the beginning, some people could understand not doing that. But this is the third Olympic Games that this is happening.”
All of which leads to the ultimate blow to fairness: No matter how clean, how stringently vetted, how seemingly “innocent” they are, no Russian returning to the world stage after the scandal can really be trusted. That’s not fair to those who should be trusted, it’s not fair to Russians who had nothing to do with 2014, and it’s certainly not fair to the clean athletes from other countries who will wonder if the Russian next to them is doing things the right way or is simply another pawn in that country’s wide-ranging conspiracy.
“Russia dug its own grave and has ruined the chances for any clean Russian athlete to compete,” said Jim Walden, the attorney for Grigory Rodchenkov, the former Moscow lab director who blew the whistle on the Russian scheme and is now in hiding in America. “If the files were deleted, how can any athlete credibly prove (his or her) innocence?
There could be reasons beyond simple “fairness” and the rights of the innocents that might explain the mission to keep Russian in the Olympic circle. Why are Bach and the IOC and, by extension, WADA so beholden to a country that cheats so much? Is it the $50 billion-plus Russia spent to host the Sochi Games?
It’s a topic worth pursuing.
But for now, let’s just take the leaders at their word.
“While being tough on the authorities, this recommendation avoids punishing the innocent and instead stands up for the rights of clean athletes everywhere,” said Jonathan Taylor, the chair of WADA’s compliance review committee.
Go ahead and take what he says at face value. But do the same with the Russians, too.
Not long after the sanctions were announced, Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko doubled down on the denials: “It was simply not realistic in Sochi to do what they are accusing us of.” Russia’s next move, he said, will be to “calmly move into the legal arena, which is what will be done.”
There’s no reason for anyone in the Russian government to back down now. Nobody at WADA, the IOC or anywhere else in the Olympic world has given them any reason to.