Olympic Showdown Between Russia and the West

Image: Putin with the Russian Olympic Judo team in 2012. Kremlin photo.

Moscow comes out looking bad ahead of Rio—but so does the IOC.

A state-sponsored coverup of widespread doping involving an undercover FSB—the KGB successor agency—agent furtively passing clean urine samples through a hole in the wall sounds like a subplot of a Cold War-era thriller. But according to a report commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), this is part of what happened from late 2011 to August 2015 in the Russian Federation, leading the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to ban Russian track and field athletes from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The investigation was spurred by former director of Russia’s antidoping laboratory Grigory Rodchenkov’s assertion that he had administered performance-enhancing drugs to Russian athletes before the 2014 Sochi Olympics with the help of the FSB. The IAAF believes that banning the entire country's track and field team is imperative since the doping system has affected the vast majority of athletes representing and training in Russia. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has banned all Russian sports ministry officials from the 2016 Games and has advised other winter-sports organizations to avoid patronizing Russia for the time being. The 2018 FIFA World Cup, to be hosted by Russia, will not be affected.

Today, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which is based in Switzerland with offices in New York and Sydney, allowed the IAAF’s decision to stand despite objection from Russian athletes. However, the IAAF has made an exception for athletes that can prove that they have continually trained outside of Russia and are subject to an external anti-doping testing system. The IOC has stated says that these athletes should compete under the Russian flag, but the IAAF prefers wants these athletes to compete under the neutral Olympic flag. To complicate matters, WADA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are also considering a ban on the entire Russian team. This wouldn't be the first time a team has been banned from the Olympics—South Africa was barred for apartheid, and during Sochi 2014, Indian athletes had to march as independents in the Opening Ceremony because of a governance dispute involving their National Organizing Committee (NOC) after an official was found guilty of corruption by the IOC.

Nevertheless, the Russian reaction has been vehement. It is no secret that the Kremlin’s default reaction to international events is to accuse the West of engineering a plot against it, and this issue is no exception. President Putin called the situation an attempt “to make sports an instrument of geopolitical pressure.” Russian sports minister Vitaly Murko has admitted that mistakes were made, yet denied any state-sponsored doping and still suspended four officials over the allegations. He accused Rodchenkov of being a defector, having fled Russia for the United States after the allegations surfaced. State-run news outlet Rossiskaya Gazeta published an article in which the independence of the WADA investigation was called into question. However, other Russian sources, including famed Russian tennis player Yevgeni Kefelnikov, defended the WADA report. Putin complained about that innocent athletes were being punished as well, but announced today, through his press secretary Dmitry Peskov, that there would be no Russian boycott of the Olympics and created a special committee, which includes foreign participants, to investigate the affair.

Do Russian claims of political discrimination have any merit, or are they simply a defense mechanism to cover up wrongdoing? The fact is that the Russians likely believed that they could get away with pretty much whatever they wanted—and that their accusers seized upon their actions to blacklist all Russian athletes. Putin has an obsession with sports and medals that makes culpability at the highest levels of Russian politics all too plausible. At the same time, demands to ban Russia were presented even before the report itself was made public. The result is that a persecution complex was reinforced among the Russian public, whereby the West is invariably out to attack Russians wherever and whenever it can.

Certainly the WADA report substantiated Grigory Rodchenkov’s story, but WADA itself is not necessarily a balanced international body. According to WADA’s website, the organization is half funded by governments, with 47.5% of that funding coming from Europe and 29% from the Americas. Of that 29%, the United States and Canada contribute 75% of the total. Of course, these numbers take into account the availability of funding in the regions involved (Africa contributes a mere 0.5%). The privately-funded Olympic Movement contributes the other half of WADA’s funding. Almost half of this funding comes from sponsorships, most of them major Western-based companies (McDonald’s, GE, P&G, etc.) Though international in name, the IOC and WADA are more representative of the West than any other part of the world. In addition, the composition of the CAS panel responsible for the ruling to uphold the