NEW YORK – If you’re looking for winners after the International Olympic Committee’s decision to boot Russia from the upcoming Games, keep on looking.
There are none.
Yes, it’s easy to view the IOC’s decision as a victory for clean athletes who have been desperately waiting for a day like Tuesday — when the IOC finally delivered a sanction that was, at least on some level, in line with the crimes.
It’s easy to see it as vindication for Grigory Rodchenkov, the Russian lab director who helped execute the cheating, then got sick of it all and became a whistleblower who is now living in hiding in the United States.
And it’s easy to see it as a long-awaited comeuppance for the Russians, who have been thumbing their noses at long-accepted rules and norms of fair competition, virtually daring the powers that be to do something about it.
But the crimes — they have already been committed, and those who were cheated at the Sochi Olympics will never get that moment back, even if the IOC gives them a ceremony at the Pyeongchang Games in February.
Rodchenkov’s life will never be the same.
“It’s going to be challenging in ways hard to imagine,” his attorney, Jim Walden, said. “It’s unlikely he’ll ever be reunited with his family, unlikely he’ll ever leave the United States, and he’s going to be looking over his shoulder every day.”
And while it might seem like a good deal to ban Russia from the Olympics — or at least the Russian flag, anthem and uniforms, though not all its athletes — it’s a precarious position for the IOC. One potential endgame is that Russia just throws up its hands and leaves the movement altogether. Imagine, if you will, the NBA without the Lakers or the World Cup without Brazil, and you get a sense of what the Olympics might be like in the future without its second-biggest team.
As the IOC left it, there figure to be a number of Russians competing in Korea.
They will be individually referred to as “Olympic Athlete from Russia,” or “OAR.”
The fact Russian Olympic Committee President Alexander Zhukov called the name a “very important” concession — to say nothing of the fact that the IOC left open the possibility that the Russian flag could fly at the closing ceremony — gives a window into the contortions the IOC has been going through to make sure it doesn’t completely alienate the country that spent $51 billion to stage the Sochi Games where it cheated all its guests.
That $51 billion wasn’t simply to put on a good show. It was part of Russia’s attempt to use sports to show it could still be a major player on the world stage, more than two decades after the breakup of the Soviet Union. For a country spending that much, a poor showing in the medals table was a nonstarter. After finishing 11th at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, something had to change.
“They view (the Olympics) as a vehicle for promoting Russian values,” said Steve Roush, the former chief of sport performance at the U.S. Olympic Committee who now does international consulting. “Vancouver was embarrassing for them. That led to, ‘We are going to change the way we do things for 2014.’ “
Boy did they.
As the IOC investigation confirmed, Rodchenkov helped build the cheating program at the behest of higher-ups in the Russian government. And now that the IOC has climbed on board with all the other investigators and whistleblowers and athletes in acknowledging that Russia’s government masterminded the plan, there are no major forces outside of that country who argue about the lengths Russia would go to use sports as a symbol of national strength.
So, even Russia’s small victory — that it can send athletes to compete under the Olympic flag — may feel like something less, given that nobody will see the Russian flag unfurled, the uniform worn or the anthem sung, and that name “Russia” will never appear on the official medal tally. That is, after all, what the Olympics are all about.
But the IOC’s small victory — that, after long last, it did the “right” thing — feels like something less, as well, given all the time it wasted, all the athletes who got hurt along the way, not to mention the concessions it made in an attempt to appease Russia one more time.
“Justice for a horrendous act on sport, a great option for clean athletes to have the opportunity to compete, and partial vindication for so many who we’re hurt by Russia’s actions,” American gold-medal bobsledder and current U.S. Olympic Committee board member Steve Mesler said in describing Tuesday’s decision.
Hardly the stuff champagne toasts are made of. But probably the best that can be said given the current state of the Olympics.