The 2018 Winter Olympics will begin its 16-day run in South Korea on Feb. 9 with a surprise absence—official Russia. I say that’s a surprise not because the Russians are undeserving of being booted; their massive, long-running and state-supported flaunting of the doping rules have few parallels. It’s because I didn’t think the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which runs the quadrennial winter and summer fests, had the cojones to do their duty in this matter.
You’ll recall that the IOC faced pretty much the same choice just before last year’s Summer Games in Rio, with pretty much the same evidence. It punted to its constituent sports federations, some of which did the right thing (mainly track and field and weightlifting) but most of which didn’t. The upshot was that the Russkies were able to strut their stuff in Brazil with only minor interruption. In the last six months, however, the case against the odious Putin regime was strengthened to the point where a “da” no longer would pass either the smell or eyeball tests, and stronger action was unavoidable. Thus is justice done in the world of international sport.
Alas, the ban was less than the total one that many observers, and 37 national anti-doping agencies including the U.S.’s, had called for. Russian flags, anthems and uniforms won’t be displayed in the Games’ base city of Pyeongchang but individual Russian athletes with lily-white drug records will be allowed to compete, if any can be found. They’ll do their things under the banner of OAR, which stands for Olympic Athletes from Russia, but their medals won’t count in the official table. Further, Russian honchos have had their VIP passes yanked, meaning that if Putin wants to show up to cheer his minions he’ll have to buy a ticket and sit with the hoi polloi. That in itself would be worth tuning in to see.
But partial as it was the IOC’s action still was praiseworthy on a couple of grounds, one of which is that it goes against the grain of sports generally. The main problem with sports governance worldwide, from the IOC to the NCAA, is that the regulators wear the two hats of promoter and policeman. The functions are incompatible and, given that it’s bad for business to knock the product you’re selling, the promoter side almost always wins. If most of my sportswriter colleagues understand this they never bother to point it out.
The other is that bucking Russia requires no little personal courage. Putin and his mafia know where their adversaries live and are not averse to playing rough when things don’t go their way. They can and will crash your computers, loot your bank accounts and run up big Mastercard charges in your name, and if they really don’t like you they’ve been known to send around a guy to stab you with a poisoned umbrella tip while you’re going about your business. I’ll bet IOC members are buying devices that start their cars remotely. I know I would be.
The practices that got Russia in trouble were no less blatant, or carried out with no less an air of impunity. The country’s athletes have been doping for decades, with a long trail of suspensions, but the scheme the country pulled off when it hosted the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi was breathtaking even by those standards. According to the testimony of Grigory Rodchenkov, the man who headed its anti-doping testing programs during the time in question, more than 100 athletes were dosed with a performance-enhancing drugs cocktail washed mixed with sweet vermouth before that event and had “clean” urine samples substituted for their real ones post-competititon.
The swap was carried out through a hole punched in the testing lab’s wall with state agents on both sides, a “B’ movie device if there ever was one. Crude as it was, the plot might have succeeded it if not for Rodchenkov’s 2016 defection to the U.S. to escape the heat generated when a Russian athlete at another venue was caught for doping. The scientist still is in this country, hiding out. The icing on the cake came in the release of Rodchenkov’s diaries and a recent leak of internal digital files on the athletes involved. Both were reported in the New York Times, which has led in its coverage of the story.
According Rodchenkov and others, the plot was overseen by Vitaly Mutko, then the nation’s minister of sport and, now, its deputy prime minister. He’s a crony of Putin’s from their days in St. Petersburg city government. That’s testimony to the level of government involvement in doping and the importance Russia assigns to shows of excellence on the world’s sports stage.
Russia’s responses to the probes leading up to the IOC ruling, and to the ruling itself, have been its usual ones to any criticism—bluster and denial. It blames it all on Rodchenkov and wicked and envious foreigners. That’s interesting because any reinstatement to top-level international sports should require a thoroughgoing revamp of its drug-testing facilities and procedures, including the kind of transparency the country resists for any of its actions. Without it Russia should stay on the outside looking in.
Not only does Russia resist blame, it also thumbs its nose at the world by such actions as making the above-mentioned Mutko the head of the organizing committee for the soccer World Cup scheduled for Russia next year. Russia has been a darling of both the IOC and FIFA, the outfit that runs world soccer. That’s because all three are (or have been) kleptocracies that like the graft to flow smoothly. In barring Russia in Korea the IOC has veered from that pattern. Whether it’s a precedent or a one-off remains to be seen.
HOLIDAY NOTE—If you have Chicago Cubs’ fans of any age on your gift list you could do worse than buy them my book, “For the Love of the Cubs,” which celebrates the team’s glorious 2016 World Series championship. They didn’t win it last season so it’s still current. It’s available on amazon or barnesandnoble.com., among other places.