The darkest moment in track and field occurs just past the finish line of a major race, or just after the final throw or jump of a major competition, when the realization sets in that we truly don’t know if the victorious athlete is competing clean or using performance-enhancing substances. Or worse, that we’re pretty confident it’s the latter.
This moment has been as common in track and field as the crack of a starter’s pistol for a very long time. Fans and media alike are intimately familiar with it, the euphoria of seeing a great performance, followed by the confusion over what we’ve actually seen. For writers, the insertion of telltale phrases into what should be joyful stories: “... has never failed a drug test.” Or, “... claims to have never used PEDs.” Or: “... has shown stunning improvement in just the last eight months.” This is that cloud that hangs over the sport (and others sports, too, but few quite like track and field and cycling).
In fact, it is not the certainty of PED use that has dragged track and field to a place … well, as Usain Bolt told me last month, “in a ditch somewhere.” It’s the unproven likelihood of PED use, accompanied by a worldwide anti-doping program in which there is little faith and the knowledge that many athletes (and coaches and agents and medicine men and apparel companies) will push the boundaries of legality in pursuit of victories and money. This is an old story; Ben Johnson went down 28 years ago in Seoul. As Sebastian Coe, the president of the IAAF—track and field’s world governing body—said Friday in Vienna, “We know that doping has been a global problem for many, many decades.”
The occasion of Coe’s statement was the announcement in Vienna that Russian track and field athletes are banned—by a unanimous vote of the IAAF council—from competing in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, because of the Russian Athletics Federation’s failure to satisfy conditions for reinstatement. Those conditions were first imposed last November, when an independent commission of the World Anti-Doping Agency first detailed the scope of Russia’s systemic doping program. Since that report, numerous other reports by official agencies and media have exposed further and widespread bad behavior by RusAF and athletes, even in the months since they were warned to start doing proper drug testing and, in general, to clean up their act.
The ban carries two significant caveats. First it is subject to approval of the International Olympic Committee, which is expected to address the issue next week. On Friday, Coe said, “The eligibility of athletes to compete lies with the IAAF,” a bold statement that is not entirely true. The IOC can take further action or amend the IAAF’s.
Second, the IAAF left open the possibility that some Russian athletes will be allowed to compete independently (not under the Russian flag), if they “can clearly and convincingly show that they are not tainted by the Russian system because they have been outside the country and subject to other, effective, anti-doping systems.” This amendment was added, said independent committee chairman Rune Andersen, a Norwegian anti-doping expert, because “you are living in a world of lawyers.”
The subtext was clear: IAAF expects multiple challenges to its ruling in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which means the situation is likely to become more murky before it becomes more clear. When Andersen was asked how he would go about finding the “clean athletes” who might compete in Rio, he said “This question of clean athletes… it’s a difficult one.” In Russia, to be sure. But elsewhere, as well.
Yet it would be wrongly and unduly cynical to view Friday’s decision as anything but a step toward cleansing track and field. It is, on the one hand, a cause for celebration. Russia is the first country to be banned from the Olympics for running a corrupt—or incompetent—anti-doping program. And it’s not just any country. It’s Russia.
However. (Feel free to add several more howevers here). However, it is a very small step. And a messy one. Clearly not every athlete who might have competed under the Russian flag in Rio was doping, but just as clearly, the system was at best broken, and at worst, wantonly corrupt. As Coe noted, the current Russian heads of sport, “Inherited a doping culture from the Soviet Union.” Coe also stressed that the burden to compete clean falls on the individual, regardless of the State’s actions.
Many people will feel very good about this. Some people did bad things and have been punished. United States Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun said, in a statement, “Today’s ruling … gives a measure of hope to clean athletes that there are consequences not only for athletes who dope, but for countries which do not engage seriously in the fight against doping.” As with all others in similar positions, Blackmun needs to make sure his high horse is anchored securely.
USA Track and Field President (and IAAF Council member) Stephanie Hightower said, also in a statement, “The continued suspension of the Russian federation came after a thorough and fair process. It is the only proper course of action given the compelling and powerful evidence presented to Council.”
Hightower knows she must tread even more lightly than Blackmun, as she presides over an organization that once loosed a BALCO-fueled Marion Jones on an unsuspecting world (track fans and media have long memories), and as longtime Olympic writer Phil Hersh pointed out on Twitter, Team USA could field a 4x100-meter relay in Rio with three sprinters who have served doping penalties: Justin Gatlin, Tyson Gay and Mike Rodgers. (The rejoinder to that is: They were caught and served their time, which is not enough to satisfy purists but plenty within the rules).
Additionally, Kenya still awaits approval from WADA that its anti-doping program is in compliance with WADA code after a rash of nearly 50 cases. And Ethiopia, too, has been exposed, though not brought under WADA or IAAF censure. (A longtime track and field insider told me in May that Ethiopia’s doping culture is “a sophisticated, government-sponsored program, not very different from the Eastern Bloc nations in the 1980’s”).
Russia is easy to demonize. At its best, in the bygone Soviet days, its red uniforms—in all sports—were symbols of all that do-gooding Americans despised. They have been the universal enemy for so long that it’s easy for us to see them go down. But Kenya and Ethiopia? For nearly as long as Russia has been evil, Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners and some middle-distance runners have been beacons of purity, their effortless strides carrying them to unthinkable performances. Now we know some of that is dirty. How much, we have no idea.
But if you tell me that a conveyor belt of Russian women running 49-point in the 400 meters is manufactured in a pharmaceutical factory somewhere, I’m not the least bit shocked. You tell me the same thing about Ethiopian distance runners, well, I’m not shocked then, either. But I’m a little more saddened.
Another country that’s had serious doping infrastructure issues, as everyone in the sport knows, is Jamaica, a system exposed by whistleblower Renee Ann Shirley. (Bolt has never been implicated, but of course, as is the nature of doping culture and coverage, nor he has been fully exonerated. Nobody has).
The effect on competition is potentially seismic. In track and field at the 2012 Games in London, the United States won 28 medals and Russia was second with 18, followed by Jamaica with 12 and Kenya with 11. In the five Games since the breakup of the Soviet Union (1996–2000, not including ’92, when former Soviet athletes competed as part of the “Unified Team”), the United States has 155 track and field medals, followed by Russia with 78. (Also: Kenya third with 47, Jamaica with 43 and Ethiopia with 32). That’s a lot of medals suddenly available to other athletes from other countries.
But are they all truly clean? We can’t know. As much as Friday’s decision is cause for optimism, it also cause for concern. Russia was not—is not?—the only nation whose athletes were cheating. A victory has been won in the fight against doping. But it’s a small victory and just the first of many ahead. It is the just the beginning.