Bruce Arthur: Having Russia at the Olympics shows the system is broken
IOC had power to ban the country, but didn’t. The aftershocks are being felt days before the Games even begin in Pyeongchang, writes Bruce Arthur.
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PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA—Welcome to Korea, where things tend to work. The airport is a marvel of efficiency, directing the journalists and guests of the world to the first Korean Olympics in 30 years. The high-speed train from Seoul to Pyeongchang is a bullet. There is none of the sawdust-wall shoddiness of Sochi, or the missing-bus creakiness of Rio, and after veering into the realm of colossal corruption, human rights violations and a crashing national economy in the past couple Games, it must be a relief for the Olympics to have landed somewhere cold, and relatively clean.
No, this time it’s the idea of the Olympics itself that is closer to broken.
As Pyeongchang approaches, nobody is happy. After their swashbuckling doping adventures, Russia is here, under a generic name — Olympic Athletes from Russia — and without a flag. Nobody, including the Russians, is fooled. Russia embarked on an extensive and ruthless state-sponsored doping program for both Olympic and Paralympic athletes from 2011 to 2015, at the least. They destroyed samples, or switched them by passing what were believed to be tamper-proof bottles of urine through the Sochi laboratory wall, using FSB agents who, you’d think, must have thought that growing up to work for the renamed KGB would involve rather less urine handling.
And still Russia is here with what is actually a far more extensive team than what was allowed in Rio, relative to historical numbers. There are 169 Russian athletes in Pyeongchang, sporting a slightly different shade of red and white as their colours. Twenty-eight more won appeals in the Court of Arbitration for Sport against their ban from these Games based on lack of evidence, which when you destroy samples is a possibility. On Monday the International Olympic Committee denied the request of the 15 — 13 athletes, two coaches — to attend these Games, citing other evidence of doping. It was, for the IOC, a chance to show some evident spine.
But cut through all the noise and you arrive at a simple place: the IOC found a way not to ban Russia for its actions. It could have, but it didn’t.
And that shakes the pillars of the Games, or should. The World Anti-Doping vice-president, Linda Helleland, called the situation “untenable,” citing a loss of faith in the system. Canadian IOC member and former WADA head Dick Pound spoke strongly at the IOC member session Tuesday, citing insufficient suspensions, no protection for whistleblowers — “they’ve been left out there hanging alone with no protection whatsoever” — and other failures of the IOC.
“More attention has been made to get the Russian athletes into the Pyeongchang Games than with dealing with Russian conduct,” said Pound. “Mr. President, we are in trouble now. We need to make clear to the world that our decisions and actions are based on principles that distinguish the Olympic movement from entertainment sports. We’re not talking about politics, no matter what anyone says. We’re talking about how we respond to attacks on those fundamental values, by a country that voluntarily agreed to respect those values, and deliberately attempted to destroy them.”
IOC president Thomas Bach rejected or ignored Pound’s various assertions, and responded that a nameless Canadian athlete had thanked him for his stand against Russia. But Russia is here, and may be allowed to march under its own flag in the closing ceremony. And in a world where the IOC didn’t fear establishing a precedent that could come back to hit, say, Jamaican sprinters or Kenyan runners or the host of the 2022 Games, that wouldn’t be the case.
Meanwhile, the bottles for urine samples that were to replace the tamper-proof ones that Russia tampered with? The German broadcaster ARD, a trailblazer when it comes to covering doping, did a special on how to tamper with the new bottles. Whoops.
Doping isn’t new. Doping isn’t limited to Russia. Nobody thinks sports is pure.
But when you are that flagrant and you get caught, people believe you should pay, and instead the IOC is trying to walk a narrow path, satisfying nobody. It calls the whole idea of the enterprise into question. The Paralympics banned Russia from Rio and maintained the ban in Pyeongchang, and their procedures would allow Russians who prove — “prove” — they are clean to compete. They’re expected to grant about 30 to 35 Russians the right.
It’s a long way from there to 169, plus extras. On Monday, Canada’s luge team faced the media. They had four fourth-place finishes in Sochi; one fourth-place finish, in luge relay, was upgraded to bronze in December when Russians Albert Demchenko and Tatiana Ivanova were among the Russians nailed for doping. When they won their appeals, Canada dropped back to fourth. Canadian Sam Edney, in his fourth and final Olympics, gave a statement on behalf of the team.
He asked people to look at Canada’s luge team and see eight clean athletes, some of whom had to eat that heartbreak for two years before turning to the future. Edney said, “The whole situation is disturbing for our team, and we believe a nightmare for clean athletes. Let me be perfectly clear: this is not about a medal being taken away from me or my teammates. A clean playing field is more powerful for us than a medal around our necks.”
And he finished with, “But with that said, the show must go on, and we cannot control who we are competing against.”
And that’s where we sit. In February, Pyeongchang is cold but not snowy because the wind sweeps, bitter and dry, down the plains from Siberia. Perfect. The Russians shouldn’t be here, but here they are.