The Olympics Surrender to Russia on Doping

Image: An Olympic swimmer in Rio. Photo by Javid Nikpour of Tasnim News Agency, CC BY 4.0.

The IOC lets the unrepentant Russian state go unpunished.

While the 2014 Winter Olympic Games culminated in great success for Russia (its sportsmen won a record thirty-three gold medals), the 2016 Rio Games are marked by a scandal of unparalleled magnitude. The discovery of massive doping violations has led to a large-scale disqualification of Russia’s sportsmen. Russian athletes are banned from competing at the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, while other sportsmen’s fates are left to decisions by an individual’s sports' governing bodies. Yet this story has more to do with the ethical, rather than purely sports-related, issues.

What makes the Russian story particularly scandalous is not the massive disqualifications, but the degree of state engagement in the fraud. The WADA report in November spotlighted a “deeply rooted culture of cheating” at all levels in Russia, carried out with assistance of laboratory staff, doctors, coaches and state officials. Literally all levels of Russia’s government—the Ministry of Sports, the Center of Sports Preparation, both Moscow and Sochi laboratories, and even Russia’s secret Federal Security Service—engaged in potentially the largest discovered doping fraud in sports history. The urine samples of the Russian sportsmen were either simply marked drug-free by Moscow antidoping laboratory (“disappearing positive methodology”) or replaced by “clean” urine samples collected beforehand. The scheme allegedly even involved Russian security-service officers sneaking into the labs at night to fulfill their “fatherland duty” of urine replacement.

These revelations were exposed with assistance of the exdirector of Russia’s antidoping laboratory, who fled the country out of concern for his safety following WADA discoveries. Two of his close colleagues, both ex-antidoping officials, have recently unexpectedly died in Russia.

How does the Russian public take the blow? While the degree of fraud and its state-dictated nature would lead to some serious public discussions and potential government resignation in a democratic country, in Russia no high-level official was dismissed. Russia’s head of the Ministry of Sports, Vitaly Mutko, whose name was mentioned in WADA investigations, specifically announced that he “had nothing to be embarrassed of” and called the revelations “a continuation of the information attack on the Russian sport.” Mutko’s reaction is not surprising given that most Russians blame the West, not the Russian officials, for the scandal. Russia’s social networks (even among the pro-Western liberal audiences) are filled with complaints about the “unfair” and “inhumane” decision by the International Paralympic Committee to ban Russia’s sportsmen from partaking in the Olympics. A more general spirit was voiced by Russia’s famous pole vaulter Elena Isinbayeva, who dismissed the WADA ruling as "political and one with no legal basis." Russians, one of the most sports-obsessed nations in the world, largely share Vladimir Putin’s opinion that their country was “unfairly treated”, and describe the ban as a “politically motivated strategy” of “certain Western countries” to “purposefully humiliate us”. According to a recent poll, half of the Russians thought the use of illicit drugs did not negatively affect their interest in the competition and a sense of pride on the success of their athletes.” In another recent poll only 7 percent of respondents believed that the doping accusations were true, while an absolute majority (55 percent) described it as “a politically motivated unfair treatment of Russia by its competitors”. A third of Russian respondents believed that “sportsmen from other countries use illicit drugs as well”, yet “only Russia got punished”.