Note: The following is an editorial from FasterSkier’s editorial board, consisting of its editors, and is not meant to reflect the opinions of our broader staff.
On Sunday, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Executive Board decided against an all-out ban on Russian athletes at the 2016 Summer Olympics, which start Aug. 5 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Instead, the IOC asked each individual sports federation (IF) to do a rigorous review of the Russian entries for Rio and determine whether they have undergone sufficient drug testing to be deemed “clean” and cleared to compete.
The IFs have been left just 12 days and no guidance for how to do this.
The decision was the culmination of a long process – just how long depends on who you ask.
Perhaps the process began in 2010, when whistleblower Vitaly Stepanov initially contacted the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) with information about systematic doping in Russia.
Or perhaps the process began in December 2014, when German documentarian Hajo Seppelt finally broadcast Stepanov’s information to the public on ARD. It was quickly seen around the world.
Later, WADA commissioned several independent reports, the first of which revealed extensive systematic doping in track and field. The first report, led by former WADA President Dick Pound, dropped in November 2015. Maybe the process began then.
Or maybe things only got going in the last week. The last of those reports was published last Monday. Professor Richard McLaren’s report showed government-organized manipulation of anti-doping efforts in Russia, including at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.
After that, the IOC had to act. The report led to even stronger calls for a complete ban on Russian athletes in Rio, and also at the next Winter Olympics in 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Instead of enacting such a ban, the IOC Executive Board delivered a confusing, unclear decision where Russian athletes may participate after meeting supposedly stringent criteria which are not defined; where Russians with past doping violations are treated differently than those from other countries; and where Russian athletes in different sports may be treated completely differently from one another.
The result will be neither fair to clean athletes who were affected by the Russian government’s manipulation of hundreds of positive doping samples over the last five years, nor to Russian athletes themselves.
Some have noticed. Canadian biathlete and two-time Olympian Brendan Green was one of many sharing this image:
With this in mind, here are some questions for IOC President Thomas Bach and his Executive Board.
1) Do you listen to athletes?
A group of influential athlete representatives held a press conference after McLaren’s last Monday. Among them were Canadian cross-country skier Beckie Scott, the chair of the WADA Athlete Committee, and IOC Athletes’ Commission chair Adam Pengilly.
The group advocated for an unequivocal ban on Russian athletes in both Rio and PyeongChang. Before the McLaren report had even dropped, Pengilly explained, they had circulated a letter stating those aims. The letter was endorsed by athlete representatives from more than 20 different sports federations. Clearly, there was widespread support for such a position.
After the McLaren report came out, that position was solidified.
“We would like to highlight our belief that WADA must allow Professor McLaren and his team to continue their investigation, that Russia should be banned from the Rio Olympics, Paralympics, and other international events, and that International Federations must enact sanctions so as to protect clean sport,” the WADA Athlete Committee said in a statement.
It has been clear for quite some time that the Olympics are not about the needs or wishes of the athletes, but that was underlined by the Executive Board’s decision.
“I believe that the Russian federation has mocked the Olympic movement and I worry about the future of clean sport, I worry about the future for clean athletes, the Olympic movement and the Olympic Games,” Pengilly said told the BBC, where he later said he was “embarrassed” by the Executive Board’s decision. “Some have suggested the IOC has passed the buck and I’d have to agree. There’s been an abdication of responsibility here.”
Fellow IOC Athletes’ Commission member Hayley Wickenheiser, the Canadian four-time gold medalist in ice hockey, had this to say:
2) Do you listen to WADA?
For years – literally – WADA obfuscated, ignored whistleblowers and failed to take action when provided with compelling evidence of doping in Russia.
But in the last few weeks, it appeared that WADA had grown a backbone. After the McLaren report was delivered, the WADA Executive Committee published a list of seven recommendations.
The very first one: “The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) to consider, under their respective Charters, to decline entries, for Rio 2016, of all athletes submitted by the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) and the Russian Paralympic Committee.”
WADA also suggested that Russian government officials be banned from attending Rio.
That might be the main recommendation that the IOC actually upheld: in their decision they wrote that “Nobody implicated [in the McLaren report], be it an athlete, an official, or an NF, may be accepted for entry or accreditation for the Olympic Games.”
In the McLaren report, Russian Minister of Sport Vitaly Mutko is named as having interfered with at least one positive doping case. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s name is mentioned in the report as having personally appointed a Deputy Minister of Sport who helped hide positive tests.
Will either be banned from Rio? Is that under the purview of any international federation, or only the IOC? Will President Bach sign deny those credentials himself?
Otherwise, WADA – a body which is partially funded by the IOC, but did not have the power to enact a ban on Russian athletes itself – was left in the cold.
“WADA is disappointed that the IOC did not heed WADA’s Executive Committee recommendations that were based on the outcomes of the McLaren Investigation and would have ensured a straight-forward, strong and harmonized approach,” said WADA President Sir Craig Reedie. “The McLaren Report exposed, beyond a reasonable doubt, a state-run doping program in Russia that seriously undermines the principles of clean sport embodied within the World Anti-Doping Code.”
3) What do you mean by “reliable adequate international tests”?
The IOC clearly wanted the process to approve Russian athletes for the Rio Games to be onerous, or at least to seem that way.
“Under these exceptional circumstances, Russian athletes in any of the 28 Olympic summer sports have to assume the consequences of what amounts to a collective responsibility in order to protect the credibility of the Olympic competitions, and the “presumption of innocence” cannot be applied to them,” the IOC wrote in the preamble to its decision.
And so the board mandated that all athletes be subjected to review by their relevant IFs.
“The absence of a positive national anti-doping test cannot be considered sufficient by the IFs….The IFs should carry out an individual analysis of each athlete’s anti-doping record, taking into account only reliable adequate international tests, and the specificities of the athlete’s sport and its rules, in order to ensure a level playing field.”
Yet there is no definition of reliable – which testing agencies does this include? And there is no definition of adequate – how many tests, over what period of time?
Russian Olympic Committee member Alexander Zhukov was invited to give a presentation to the IOC Executive Board. In it, he asserted that since the first WADA report Russian athletes have been repeatedly tested by international anti-doping agencies and, according to the IOC press release, “the vast majority of the results were negative.”
Yet, the main agency tasked with these tests, UK Antidoping, reported via WADA in June that 16 percent of scheduled tests could not be collected from athletes; a further 736 tests were canceled or declined; and that doping control officers were sometimes harassed and intimidated when they tried to collect samples.
Is this international testing reliable and adequate?
4) Is this fair to Russian athletes?
Without a definition of what constitutes reliable and adequate testing, outcomes for various sports are already vastly different.
The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has banned all but two Russian track and field athletes from the Games. (The IOC went on to actually kick out one of those two, Yuliya Stepanova, a whistleblower who helped bring the entire scandal to light. Nice.)
Meanwhile, the International Tennis Federation took only about an hour to apply the IOC’s supposedly rigorous standards and decide that all seven Russians set to compete in the Olympics were just fine. On Monday World Archery approved three. Neither of those sports were referenced in the McLaren report. Triathlon, where four positive samples were “disappeared”, announced that Russia will still be able to enter a full quota of six athletes in Rio; only four other countries were even able to qualify the maximum number of athletes.
Somewhere in the middle are FINA, the International Swimming Federation, which has kicked seven Russians off of its qualification lists, and the International Federation of Gymnastics, which vowed to carefully follow the IOC’s guidelines in approving athletes for competition.
In the past weeks Bach has talked extensively about the need to balance collective punishment for government action against individual justice. He has said that clean Russian athletes who had nothing to do with the scandal should not be punished. But it seems clear now that in some sports they will be, whereas in other sports they will not (or their doping teammates might even be able to compete alongside, or instead of, them).
5) Is this what zero tolerance means?
One of the IOC guidelines states that any Russian athlete who has served a doping ban cannot compete in Rio.
One can almost see the logic: with many tests manipulated, the chances are higher that those athletes could have had a second positive test. If true, this should have led to a second and potentially longer ban which they would still be serving.
But maybe not — what if they did reform and are now clean? The provision sends an extremely confusing message: past dopers from some countries are allowed a second chance, but there’s no redemption if you’re from Russia. How is that zero tolerance, much less fair?
When Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay (American sprinters previously banned for doping) likely medal in the men’s 100 meters, how will a Russian track and field athlete feel? Probably that it’s absolutely fine to dope – as long as you’re not from Russia.
Zhukov has said that Russia will not appeal this provision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which is lucky, because it would almost certainly not stand up. Not only does it represent a double standard, but a 2011 ruling in advance of the 2012 Olympics already made it clear that athletes who have already served their doping bans cannot be banned from the Olympics.
So, President Bach and the Executive Board, whose advice were you following?