The decision of the International Olympic Committee not to impose a blanket ban on Russia attending the Rio Olympics is a genuine surprise to me. All the indications that I saw over the last few days pointed clearly to a concerted effort to achieve a ban.
Two factors I suspect weighed on the IOC. The first is that there appears to have been strong opposition to the proposed ban by some sports federations. I do not yet have the full information. However I suspect that the opposition came mainly from those sports federations where non-Western countries are most heavily represented.
Here perhaps I may have been unduly influenced by the fact that I live and write in Britain. In Britain the entire mainstream media has been united in calling for a blanket ban with no dissenting voices to speak of. Some of the calls and much of the reporting has been couched in extraordinarily aggressive language, with no reporting at all of the fact that samples from Russian athletes are now tested in Britain, and scarcely any word of concern for the fate of the innocent Russian athletes who would have been affected by a blanket ban.
In this atmosphere it is to easy to overlook the fact that there is a world outside the West and that perhaps is what happened to me. Ultimately I suspect that the process being used to achieve the blanket ban was simply too biased and too obviously political to convince anyone outside the steadily diminishing section of the world’s population whose opinions are formed by the Western media. Here as in so many other cases recently I suspect that the proponents of the ban overreached themselves.
The second factor which may have influenced the IOC was that the Russians have made clear their intention to contest the bans imposed on them in the civil courts. I am not sure which courts have jurisdiction to decide these questions, but if any do then given the blatantly political nature of the campaign for the proposed blanket ban and the fundamental problems of discrimination, collective punishment and lack of due process involved in imposing the ban, the IOC would have risked embarrassing judgments and orders to pay very large sums of compensation if it had proceeded with it.
No one should however treat today’s decision as any form of victory. Firstly Russia’s track and field athletes remain collectively banned. Secondly there is a strong possibility that some other sports federations might follow the lead of the IAAF and impose their own blanket bans on Russian athletes. Unfortunately I think that is very likely.
Beyond that there is the colossal damage done by this affair to the Olympic movement itself.
Comparisons have been made with the boycotts of the 1980 and 1984 Olympic Games. Those however were straightforwardly political boycotts, openly and honestly imposed, and staunchly opposed by the IOC and the Olympic movement.
This time what we have seen was an attempt to exclude a whole country from the Olympic Games using an unproved and essentially bogus claim as the reason – state sponsored doping of Russian athletes – which was carried out through the institutions of the Olympic movement itself in contravention of the Olympic movement’s own founding and fundamentally humanitarian principles and the non-discriminatory provisions of its own charter. Moreover instead of this attempt being condemned and rejected immediately – as it should have been – it came within a whisker of success, with Russian track and field athletes still subject to a blanket ban, and with the training of other Russian athletes seriously disrupted.
Since the boycotts in the 1980s were so obviously political and imposed on the Olympic movement from outside, it was possible when the political conflicts behind the boycotts had ended for the Olympic movement to come together and for the divisions caused by the boycotts to be healed.
The far more insidious way in which this latest campaign has been conducted through the institutions of the Olympic movement and of world sport means that this time the damage will be far more lasting. People around the world now know that it is possible to bend the Olympic movement and the world’s sporting bodies to the will of powerful forces pursuing a straightforwardly political agenda so that Russia – one of the leading countries in world sport – was almost excluded from the Olympic Games. This will not be forgotten quickly and the seeds of mistrust and conflict has now been planted at the heart of the Olympic movement, which will as a result never be the same again.