Friday, June 17, 2016

Russia's athletics ban to continue into Olympic Games

In a dramatic and brave ruling earlier today, the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) has upheld the ongoing suspension of Russian track and field athletes from international competitions, which means that they will almost certainly be absent from the Olympic Games later this summer. The International Olympic Committee still has to make its own definitive announcement next week, but in theory they should be ruled by the IAAF.
Russia was banned from international competition last November following allegations by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) of widespread and state-sponsored doping in a variety of sports, at times involving even the Russian secret service. There is little controversy or doubt over this,  and it is backed up by the former director of Russia's anti-doping laboratory, who fled the country earlier this year, and who has freely admitted that he took part in a team-wide doping scheme, meticulously planned over a period of years, during the 2015 Winter Games in Sochi.
Since then, Russia's Minister of Sport has admitted to a culture of doping (although he fell short of admitting state sponsorship of such practices), and has claimed that the country is doing everything possible to turn things around and to regain the trust of the international sports community. However, a new report by WADA, just this week, claims that, even after these promises, Russian anti-doping officials are still routinely being stopped from testing athletes, and are even being threatened by security services. In this climate, the IAAF has little or no choice but to uphold the ban, even given (or perhaps because of) the extreme sensitivity of the timing, just before the upcoming Olympic Games.
Russia, from President Putin on down, is predictably incensed, and sees itself as being unfairly penalized while other countries like Ethiopia and Kenya, which have their own doping challenges, are being let off comparatively lightly. But I think it is fair to say that in no other country is the practice quite so ingrained and aggressive in its application. There is still a possibility that some "clean" Russian athletes will mount an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) before the Olympics, arguing that it is wrong to punish clean athletes for the crimes of others. A small number of individual Russian athletes may be able to compete as neutrals if they can prove they are clean, but, as things stand, it looks like Russia will not be appearing in the medals table any time soon.
But, it is worth remembering that there are plenty of other cheats in the world of sport who are not Russian, and who may not be quite so systematic. My faith in, and my enjoyment of, international sports has been severely compromised in recent years. Frankly, I would not be excessively upset if the whole Olympic Games were put on hiatus until the doping problems and the myriad corruption issues within the International Olympic Committee as a whole are resolved. The "bloated extravagance of greed, corruption, simplistic flag-waving and materialistic excess", as a recent Globe and Mail editorial aptly summed up the modern-day Olympics, has little or nothing to do with the bold but hopelessly na├»ve aspirations of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, and this seems like a good time to stand back and rethink the whole enterprise.
Well, credit where credit is due, the Court of Arbitration for Sport has put its money where its mouth is and rejected an appeal by the Russian Olympic Committee and 68 Russian athletes, and upheld the ban on Russia attending the upcoming Olympic Games.
Russian officials and many athletes are obviously pretty upset, and no doubt President Putin will stick his oar in at some point, as is his wont. But this ruling gives the strongest possible message that drugs (and especially systematic drugging) will not be tolerated and, after the latest damning WADA report, the authorities had little choice but to ban the whole country if they were ever to be taken seriously again.

But then the final decision-making was turned over the International Olympic Committee (IOC), a body that many consider to be almost as corrupt as Russia. So, now it appears that the Russian Olympic ban will not be total after all. The IOC has ruled that competitors from Russia can take part in the Games provided they meet certain strict criteria (e.g. any athlete who has ever tested positive for drugs will be disallowed), and it is up to the individual sports federations and athletes to prove that they are clean.The IOC specifically confirmed that it will not allow whistleblower Yulia Stepanova to compete, even as a neutral athlete, in Rio, on the grounds that she has previously failed a doping test, and also does not satisfy the IOC's "ethical requirements".
Some see this as the "prudent" thing to do, but many others (including several prominent Canadian athletes) see it as a historic opportunity squandered, and an open door to "business as usual". I am in the latter camp, and consider the IOC decision to be mealy-mouthed and soft,  and a slap in the face to WADA, the CAS, IAFTA, and everyone else who has been calling for a full ban. It has certainly not renewed my faith in the IOC and the Olympics in general.

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