Which nation will field the most doping-free team at the Rio Olympics, due to start on August 5? Russia, the country that narrowly avoided a blanket ban from the games for drug abuse.
On Sunday, the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) executive board decided that Russian athletes will not enjoy a presumption of innocence — in other words, they will all be considered potential dopers and subject to “a rigorous additional out-of-competition testing programme”. Following a series of reports from the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada), which documented a state-sponsored system of enhancing athletes’ performance with forbidden substances, the IOC barred all Russians who have ever been disqualified for doping. It has also told international federations responsible for specific sports events to examine all Russian athletes’ anti-doping records, only taking into account “reliable adequate international tests”.
This, of course, means that Russia will field a much smaller Olympic team than it usually does. The International Association of Athletics Federations has already ruled out the entire Russian track and field team. The governing bodies of swimming and rowing have banned seven and three Russians, respectively — all for past doping offences.
This, of course, is not happening to athletes from other countries, though doping is a fixture of high-achievement sports everywhere. Earlier this year, Wada published its 2014 anti-doping violations report. Ten countries were responsible for 44 per cent of the total violations recorded in summer Olympic disciplines.
In some events, such as athletics, weightlifting and cycling, adverse findings are common in many countries, but some nations excel in particular sports: 56 Italian cyclists and 22 Indian weightlifters were caught doping in 2014. Italy leads the way; Niccolo Mornati, a five-time world championship rowing medallist and brother of Carlo Mornati, the national Olympic committee functionary leading the country’s Rio delegation, can’t compete because of a four-year ban for taking a medicine typically used to treat breast cancer.
Had United States cyclist Bobby Lea been Russian, he wouldn’t have been competing in Rio: He tested positive for oxycodone, a banned substance, at the US track cycling championship in August 2015, but got his 16-month suspension reduced to six months through an arbitration process. US weightlifter Sara Robles, whose two-year ban for an androgenic steroid expired last year, would have been disqualified, too. Both made it to Team USA.
It may appear unfair that the formerly disqualified Americans are in Rio and Russians, some with less serious past violations — some simply captured by the blanket ban in athletics — are kept out. Yelena Isinbayeva, the champion pole-vaulter who had vowed to win the Olympics with a world record, is certainly mad. “Whoever wins in my absence in Rio will really only win second place,” said Isinbayeva, who has never been banned for doping.
One could argue, however, that Isinbayeva isn’t only out because of collective responsibility: The Wada report on which the IOC decision is based claimed that Russia asked its potential medal winners to submit extra urine samples in case they needed to be swapped quickly. Any Russian athlete that did was already being less-than-honest. Besides, the US and others with former transgressors on their teams haven’t been accused of state-sponsored doping. That kind of accusation smears an entire nation, not just specific athletes.
The IOC has been criticised for not imposing a blanket ban on Russia — by Wada, by western media, by athletes denied medals by Russian rivals now under a cloud of suspicion. German tabloid Bild denounced IOC president Thomas Bach as “Putin’s Poodle”. And yet the decision was ultimately wise.
One reason is that state-sponsored doping systems — or at least entire crooked sports federations or teams — may well exist in other countries. Authoritarian countries, where sporting success is a proxy for military glory, may be equally guilty but, unlike in Russia, no whistleblowers have pointed investigators in the right direction. If so, making an example out of Russia won’t work — anyone running a similar system with a crooked laboratory will just make doubly sure there are no leaks. Blanket bans would only make sense if several countries or federations had been caught.
Another reason the IOC was right to spare Russians while imposing tough conditions is about sportsmanship. The IOC has warned Russian athletes they will be under constant scrutiny. The responsibility for repairing the country’s tarnished reputation is squarely on their shoulders: If they can win under these circumstances, they’ll show that Russia is still a global sports power despite the way its high achievement programme has been run under President Vladimir Putin. In a competition where Olympic athletes weep when they hear the national anthem playing and see their home flag raised, it would be unfair to take away that opportunity to make amends.
On the other hand, perhaps it would make sense to bar every athlete with a past violation from the Olympics, and to test participants as rigorously as Russians will be tested in Rio. Then, perhaps, the downside of doping will be severe enough for athletes to stop taking the substances. The decimated but potentially squeaky-clean Russian team goes into the competition with a handicap; but it’s a useful experiment in whether winning in modern sports is possible under a super-strict regime.
Leonid Bershidsky is a writer based in Berlin.