There is understandable anger and bewilderment in Russia at the announcement by the IOC that Russian athletes who have been cleared to compete at the Olympic Games in Rio by their own sports federations must now also pass a separate check by a 3 person IOC panel. It must indeed seem to the Russians that they are being asked to play against a constantly shifting set of goal posts.
I should say that the IOC decision is not actually unexpected and does not actually represent a retreat from its original decision. However it is understandable that there is anger about it in Russia, and about the fact that whilst Russian athletes with completely clean records who have had the misfortune of merely been named in ways that might even theoretically connect them to doping are being banned from Rio, athletes from other countries who have actually been caught doping are being allowed to compete there.
I agree that this is all outrageous. Indeed one of the most ugly aspects of this whole affair is the cruel bullying and mistreatment of young athletes who have done nothing wrong, simply because they happen to be Russian. It goes without saying that the training programmes of even those Russian athletes who do finally get to Rio have been badly disrupted, and their chances of winning medals must now be seriously diminished. Russians must prepare themselves for a drastically reduced medal haul from these Games.
However saying all this should not detract from the qualified political success Russia has nonetheless achieved by avoiding a blanket ban which would have prevented it from sending any sort of team to Rio at all. I do not think the implications of a blanket ban, had it taken place, have been widely understood. What it would have amounted to was Russia’s expulsion from the Olympic Games with no guarantee that it would be allowed to compete again at any Olympic Games in the future. It would in effect have amounted to Russia’s expulsion from the Olympic movement, with its readmission dependent on it fulfilling requirements that have never been spelled out, and which could therefore be changed at any time. Suffice to say that there would have been no guarantee that that would have ever happened, or that Russia would have been allowed to participate in the Olympic Games in 2020 in Tokyo, or in any Olympic Games thereafter.
That this was indeed the agenda is clear enough from the way the whole anti-doping campaign against Russia has been conducted. It seems that a decision to expel Russia from the Olympic movement was taken probably around the time of the failure of the campaign to boycott the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014. All the various allegations of doping in Russia that have circulated since 2010 and even before were then sifted through to construct a case. Someone then put them all together in a dossier, spicing them up with witness testimony from people like Stepanova and Rodchenkov. A series of lurid articles and documentaries then appeared in the Western media, reviving all the allegations and putting the worst possible spin on them. A series of reports from WADA then followed in quick succession starting in the autumn of last year, timed to make the maximum possible impact and to leave the least possible time for proper independent fact checking or for any other steps to be taken before the start of the Rio Games. That way the allegations could not be properly and independently assessed and no fully fair arrangements could be made to allow for the admission of all indisputably clean Russian athletes. That opened the way, just as the Rio Games were about to start, for the IOC to be presented with a demand for a blanket ban.
To those who think I am going too far joining up the dots, consider the angry comments about WADA made by IOC President Thomas Bach on Sunday. He is reported by RT to have said the following:
“The IOC report isn’t responsible for the fact that the information, which was presented to WADA several years ago, did not lead to any action. Therefore, the IOC can’t be responsible for the timing and reason of what we we’re facing. Because we’re facing this with just a few days before the Olympic games. Now is the time to resolve this situation. Before the Games start, and then after the Olympic Games, there will be more time to carefully analyse the whole situation, and I would advise everybody… to study this situation with a certain distance and not under this moment of very emotional and passionate debates. Imagine the situation if we would not have taken the decision [to admit Russian team]… I trust the people that they will realise the difficulties we are in, they will realize that we did our best to address this situation in a way which allows protecting all clean athletes all over the world.”
Thomas Bach is making exactly the same point I made a few days ago: that the reason for the chaotic admission and checking process imposed on Russian athletes – with all the unavoidable problems of constantly shifting goalposts and deeply unfair practices which this is causing – is because WADA sprung its trap just before the Olympic Games in Rio were due to start, leaving no time to do the thing properly. Here is what I said:
“Those who think the precautions already taken to prevent cheating by Russian athletes at Rio are insufficient despite involving British scientists and British officials should in fairness say so, and should also say what they think should be done over and above what has already been done to make cheating by Russian athletes in Rio impossible. That is what proponents of the campaign do not do, but it is what the IOC – very properly – is now trying to do. That it has been left so desperately late – with all the undoubted problems that will cause – is not the fault of the IOC or indeed of the Russians. It is the fault of those like WADA who have wasted months of time campaigning for an illegal blanket ban instead of proposing a legal and workable solution to the problem, which the Russians could have worked towards.”
(bold italics added)
Bach was also indirectly making another point I have made before, when he spoke of how “after the Olympic Games, there will be more time to carefully analyse the whole situation”. Here is what I said about that:
“In any rational world what ought to have happened is that when Stepanova’s and Rochenkov’s allegations became public a full and proper investigation ought to have been set up, with all the witnesses examined and represented by legal counsel, and with the forensic evidence examined by a variety of scientific experts, who could have been cross-examined and whose reports would have been made public. Since this would have taken time – a year at least – arrangements of the sort now set up by the IOC should have been made in the meantime to ensure that there was no cheating by Russian athletes at Rio.”
Bach’s comments show that it is this rational approach he and the IOC are trying to work towards despite the desperately short time that has been given to them.
What Bach of course did not say, though I am sure it is what he privately thinks, is that the IOC were put into this position deliberately. Those who are angry about the bullying and mistreatment of Russian athletes should not blame the IOC. They should blame those who deliberately created the whole situation in order to put the IOC in a position where – as they thought – it would have no option but to impose a blanket ban. It is a tribute to the strong-mindedness and integrity of the IOC that it didn’t buckle under the pressure and impose the blanket ban, wrong and illegal though that would have been.
It is not to detract from the individual tragedies of Russian athletes or the massive anger and disappointment many Russians must feel about the brutal and unfair treatment of their country and their athletes to say that one should nonetheless be grateful that something altogether more sinister and more dangerous did not happen. For the first time in its history the Olympic movement was faced with an attempt to expel a whole nation from the Olympic family. Not only would that have been a total violation of the Olympic movement’s whole ethos. It was done in a veiled and underhand way, picking on individual athletes, in a way that makes the whole attempt more sinister still. In the event the Olympic movement remained true to itself and the attempt failed, even if in the process terrible individual acts of injustice have been done. That is something to be genuinely grateful for. That the attempt was made at all however shows how far some people are prepared to go. That can only provoke serious worry for the future.