Russia has been banned from the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games. The decision by the International Olympic Committee reflects Russia’s “systematic manipulation of the anti-doping rules and system,” or, to be blunt, cheating in the 2012 and 2014 Olympic Games. The decision must have infuriated Russian President Vladimir Putin, who considers sporting events indicators of national character and sporting victories a source of national pride. His anger should be weighed against those of athletes who lost opportunities to stand on the podium because of Russian cheating.
Charges of cheating are not new to Russian athletes. Throughout the Cold War, Soviet bloc competitors were dogged by doping allegations, and they were periodically proven but usually well after the fact. In recent years, Russian athletes and even staff at the Russian anti-doping agency have alleged systemic cheating, but international sporting authorities refused to act. In one case, the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA) sent the allegations to its Russian counterpart, which promptly banned the athlete who made the charges.
A German filmmaker took up the accusations and produced a documentary so sensational and so credible that it spurred the WADA and the International Association of Athletics Federations to do their own investigation. That report, released in November 2015, concluded that Russia had cheated and had effectively “sabotaged” the 2012 London Olympic Games.
After the 2014 Sochi Games, Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory, charged Russia with systematic state-sponsored doping and a cover-up that involved the state security services. Those allegations prompted WADA and the IOC to launch two more investigations, both of which confirmed Rodchenkov’s charges. The IOC report, chaired by Samuel Schmid, the former president of Switzerland, concluded that there was systematic, state-supported cheating in Russia. In all, it is estimated that more than 1,000 Russian athletes competing in more than 30 sports have been involved in doping since at least 2011.
In response, the IOC this week suspended the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC), banned all ROC officials from the Winter Games to be held in South Korea in February, and will only allow invited Russian athletes to compete under the Olympic flag (i.e., not as representatives of their country). Those athletes will be vetted by the IOC, must have no previous doping violations and must undergo and pass all pre-games tests recommended by an IOC task force.
A national ban is unprecedented in the history of the Olympics — countries have been banned for political reasons and never because of cheating — but IOC President Thomas Bach called Russian behavior “an unprecedented attack on the integrity of the Olympic Games and sport.” In addition, the IOC promised those athletes who were bested by Russian cheats in earlier games that it would try to “make up for the moments they missed on the podium or the finish line.” It is a noble sentiment, but those athletes cannot be made whole. They may get their rightful medals, and some will have another chance to compete, but that first moment cannot be replayed, and they will not have the chance to stand on the podium or hear their national anthem.
Other anti-doping officials and heads of national athletic organizations applauded the IOC decision, but Russia has been unrepentant. While acknowledging cheating by individual athletes, officials and others deny any state-sponsored program. A presidential spokesmen dismissed the charges as a “groundless crackdown,” and Putin had earlier called the prospect of Russian athletes competing as neutrals without a national team “humiliating.” In response to the IOC decision, however, Putin said he would not stop Russian athletes from competing in the Pyeongchang Games in their capacity as individuals.
A Russian lawmaker declared that “we won’t apologize. … We have nothing to apologize for and neither do our athletes.” Russia has issued an arrest warrant for Rodchenko, who the Kremlin calls “a turncoat,” although he fears worse things: Two other senior Russian anti-doping officials died suddenly within weeks of each other in early 2016 as the scandal broke.
The IOC’s Bach also noted that the decision “should draw a line under this damaging episode and serve as a catalyst for a more effective anti-doping system led by WADA.” This is the most important challenge for the IOC and its partner organizations. International sporting associations must learn from this sorry episode, and that includes taking stock not only of Russian behavior but of their own. Allegations have persisted for years and international athletic associations and the IOC have appeared to prefer ignorance and disbelief to confronting the ugly reality that has been revealed and confirmed through these investigations. Their readiness to look away has tainted their sports and their showcase competitions. Punishing Russia for its behavior is only part of the IOC task: It must also ensure that this does not happen again.