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The Stalinist Witch-Hunt Against Russian Athletes

The campaign to ban Russian athletes is an unethical and grossly political affair.

When the doping scandal involving Russian athletes first broke I wrote a piece for Sputnik in which I said that an across the board ban on Russian athletes would be contrary to the principles of the Olympic movement and would be openly and grossly discriminatory. 

Reversing the standard of proof and barring athletes against whom there is no evidence simply because they happen to be Russians would be so obviously wrong and unjust that it would inevitably raise questions about the motives of those behind it.  These were the words I used:

“The Russian authorities are challenging some of the allegations — as it is their right to do — but look to be genuinely offering cooperation to help solve the problem. For example, they have offered to appoint a foreign specialist to head their laboratory. The right thing to do is not to impose a blanket ban but to work with the Russian authorities so that the problem can be solved. That may involve bringing criminal charges and imposing individual bans on specific persons, barring them from involvement in international sports training and competition.

If that does not happen and a blanket ban on Russian athletes is imposed instead, then it seems to me that the world’s sporting bodies will not only have retreated from their ideals but will open themselves up to questions about what their real motives are.”

Since I wrote those words it has unfortunately become all too clear that the concerns I expressed in the final paragraph were only too justified.

The Russians do not deny that there has been a doping problem in Russian sport and seem to have made a genuine effort to respond to the concerns of the international sporting bodies.  Though it is barely reported in the West, since January samples of all Russian track and field athletes are sent to Britain for testing.  Russian athletes now engaging in doping would presumably have to fool or gain the cooperation of the British authorities in order to do it.  Neither seems very likely.  The Russians have also banned the individuals they allege were involved in doping from further involvement in sport, and have brought criminal charges against some of them.

Notwithstanding these steps, since January there has been an escalating campaign to discredit Russian sports and to have Russian athletes banned from the Olympic Games, which are due to take place in Rio de Janeiro.  It first began with a media campaign against Russia’s Maria Sharapova, Russia’s iconic tennis champion.  Sharapova was banned for using meldonium, a Soviet era medicine still made in Latvia which is very commonly used in the former USSR, and which it was perfectly legal for athletes to use until just the beginning of this year.

The Russians have made it fairly clear they think the reason meldonium was placed on the list of prohibited substances is because Western athletes don’t take it as it is hardly known in the West.  By contrast many Russian athletes do take it – as do many other Russians – for purely medical reasons.  Though Sharapova only took the medicine for a period of 2 weeks after it was prohibited, a media campaign was launched against her in the West, and she was banned from international tennis competition for 2 years.

Not only does this seem grossly disproportionate but it ignores the fact that Sharapova’s explanation – that she took the medicine for purely medical reasons on the advice of her doctor and continued to take it because she missed the email informing her it was banned – is probably true.  If Sharapova had really been taking the medicine to enhance her performance she would presumably have kept the fact she was taking it secret and would have kept a careful eye out in case it was banned, taking immediate steps to conceal her use when it was banned.  That she did none of these things is a strong sign her actions were innocent as she says, and that her perfectly plausible explanation is true.  That the US sports fashion group Nike continues to work with her shows they too believe her explanation is true.

The Sharapova affair however was merely the first act to the drama.  A series of articles appeared in The New York Times and the London Times making lurid allegations of systematic Russian state involvement in doping Russian athletes, and a series of documentaries making the same claims also appeared on German television. 

These allegations are largely based on claims made by individuals the Russian authorities claim were involved in doping, including Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of Moscow’s anti-doping laboratory.  Some of these individuals are the subject of criminal proceedings brought against them by the Russian authorities, including Rodchenkov who has fled abroad.  By contrast these same individuals in the West are called “whistleblowers”, with their allegations assumed to be true.  When the allegations and proceedings the Russians are bringing against them are reported – which is rarely – they are represented as attempts by the Russian authorities to punish and discredit them. 

Followers of the Magnitsky and other affairs will be familiar with the pattern whereby individuals charged with serious crimes in Russia are called “whistleblowers” in the West.  The key point to take away however is that (as is the case in the Magnitsky affair) none of the allegations either by or against these individuals have ever been proved to be true in any contested legal proceedings in any court, even though the allegations involve serious criminal offences.

These media stories were timed to coincide with the meeting of the International Association of Athletics Federations (“IAAF”) on 17th June 2017, which upheld the ban on Russian track and field athletes attending the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.  As if to make sure the decision went the “right” way, a series of hostile articles appeared just before the meeting in the British media which made serious accusations against Lord Coe, the IAAF’s President, with one British Conservative MP even threatening to have him investigated by the British Parliament.  That the intention behind the articles was to pressure Lord Coe and the IAAF to impose a blanket ban on Russian track and field athletes is strongly suggested by the way some of the articles all but accused him of covering up for the Russians in the past.  Perhaps not surprisingly, once the blanket ban on the Russian athletes was announced the media campaign in Britain against Lord Coe stopped.

The sequel to the IAAF ban is that Russian athletes have appealed against the ban to the Court of Arbitration for Sports in Lausanne.  However, in what obviously was not a coincidence, on the first day of the hearing on 18th July 2016 the international anti-doping agency WADA released a report, drawing heavily on Rodchenkov’s claims, which again alleges systematic state involvement in doping of Russian athletes, this time at the winter Olympics in Sochi. 

Even more interesting than the WADA report itself is that it finally made clear who is actually behind the campaign to prevent Russian athletes from attending the Rio Games.  The report was leaked before it was published to the US and Canadian sports authorities, who used it to lobby the International Olympic Committee (“IOC”) to have the entire Russian team, not just the track and field athletes, banned from the Rio Games.  The fact that the leak has compromised WADA’s appearance of independence, and the ethical issues involved in the sporting bodies of two countries lobbying the IOC for a blanket ban of the athletes of a third country, appears to have shocked some European sports officials.  That however is unlikely to concern those behind the campaign, not to mention their media allies.

This is becoming a very ugly affair.  Those who demand a wholesale banning of Russian athletes are not saying they will be using prohibited substances if they go to Rio.  In the case of the Russian athletes, whose samples are now being tested in Britain, that is now for all practical purposes either impossible, or at least extremely difficult.  Nor do they say what they want the Russians to do beyond what they have done already. 

Instead they demand that athletes against whom there is no evidence of previous wrongdoing and who there is now every reason to think will be competing in Rio cleanly, should be banned because of allegations of wrongdoing against other athletes and sports officials with whom they happen to share the same nationality.  That is collective punishment of people belonging to the same national group as well as guilt by association, practices formerly considered unacceptable in civilised countries.  

Those behind the campaign have even at times come close to saying that the Russians should confess that the allegations of systematic state involvement in doping are true if they want Russian athletes to be allowed to compete in Rio.  That it is profoundly wrong and unethical to bully a confession out of someone should be obvious.  In this case, if such a confession were ever given, it would almost certainly be treated as proof of the guilt  of every Russian athlete who has ever competed in international sports competitions.  A campaign to strip them of their titles and their medals would surely follow.

In fact what this affair most resembles is a Stalinist witch-hunt.  Wild allegations of a conspiracy based on the evidence of a few compromised individuals are treated as proof of guilt against an entire class of persons.  Demands for confessions and for stern punishments of those declared guilty follow.  The presumption of innocence is cast aside, the burden of proof is reversed, and due process is ignored.

One demand more than any other demonstrates how ugly this affair has become.  The IAAF and now the sports bodies of the US and Canada are not only demanding that Russian athletes prove their innocence before they can take part in the Games.  They also demand that even if athletes prove their innocence, they should only be allowed to take part in the Games as “neutrals” and not as Russians.  Thus even if proved innocent Russian athletes would have to deny their nation and their country – foregoing the right to wear its colours or hear its anthem if they win.  

The IOC has up to now rejected this truly outrageous demand.  Time will show whether it stands its ground.

If the case in Lausanne were simply being decided on legal principles there is no doubt the Russian athletes would win.  Imposing a blanket ban on athletes of one country simply because they happen to be citizens of that country when there is no evidence against them is wrong at so many levels it is difficult to believe any court would allow it.  However one has to face the reality that even courts that were once genuinely independent and impartial now find themselves increasingly used as weapons in what is coming to be called “lawfare”.   It is therefore no longer possible to take anything for granted. 

We shall know the answer on Thursday 21st July 2016, when the Court will publish its decision, from which be it noted there is no appeal.

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Alexander Mercouris
Editor-in-Chief atThe Duran.

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