Like most Americans, I am disgusted that Russia instituted a national doping program instead of allowing athletes to choose performance-enhancing drugs on their own. This really goes against the Olympic spirit.
The Russian doping program, detailed by The New York Times earlier this year, was incredible for several reasons. Russian Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov broke into “tamper-proof” bottles at the 2014 Sochi Olympics and replaced dirty urine samples with clean ones. Russia’s intelligence service helped him.
Now there is a movement by the World Anti-Doping Agency to ban Russia from the upcoming Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. (There’s also a lesser-known push to punish the Russians by making them go. After all, the Rio Olympics have already been hit with most of the Plagues of Egypt. Let’s get the Russians to Brazil when the boils and locusts hit, the thinking goes, and then we’ll all be even.)
In a sense, banning the whole country would be justice. If an NFL owner instituted a whole system of doping, including a team doctor sneaking into labs and tampering with supposedly tamper-proof bottles, we would want the owner kicked out of the league. The International Olympic Committee can’t kick Vladimir Putin out of office, but it can ban Russia from the Games.
So I completely understand people pushing to ban Russia. And WADA did allow for exceptions: Russians can apply to compete under a neutral flag. And yet: Something does not feel quite right about that. First of all, if you think Russia is the only country that cheats, I have a globe you ought to consult. And second, Russians who compete in the Olympics are still Russians. There are thousands of Olympic athletes who do not support their government’s actions. But they still represent their country.
It would be grossly unfair to punish innocent people, which a total ban would certainly do. And pulling one country out of the Olympics always feels wrong, whether the reasons are political or athletic. The point of the Olympics is that the whole world meets in one place. And the whole world, you may have noticed, is a big messy place.
The Olympics are not like any other sporting event. This is not the Cardinals playing the Cubs. Teams represent countries under oppressive, authoritarian regimes and those that enjoy freedom. Some Olympic teams are professional in every meaningful way, fueled by millions of corporate dollars; others appear to operate out of an abandoned garage. This is what makes the Olympics so compelling, but it’s also what makes them so difficult to manage – even if you are trying to do so with honesty and integrity, and come on: we’re talking about the IOC here.
The Olympics exist for a reason that goes beyond identifying the fastest man or best all-around gymnast in the world. In many cases, the only thing that athletes have in common is that they compete in the same event. And in many cases, we do not approve of how an athlete’s country operates, but we put that aside to allow the athlete to compete. The Olympic “movement” and Olympic “ideal” have been corrupted, sliced, diced and sold at a tidy profit for decades, but for many athletes, they really do resonate. It’s why the Olympics are always better than the people who run them.
Olympians all fall under the same doping guidelines, of course, and those who are caught cheating should be punished severely. But does this extend to a whole country?
I would argue for a more creative, nuanced solution, though one that would probably bring the same result:
Ban any official who was directly involved in the program, as the IOC would do with any country. And ban any individual athlete found to have used illegal performance-enhancing drugs. But anybody else can still show up—and compete for Russia.
Yes, this might mean that Russia throws a fit and pulls out completely. Putin might chose to protest by skipping the Olympics, making a big show domestically about how other countries envy Russia rather than let a weakened delegation finish 18th in the medal count. It also might mean another Russian government-sponsored swapping-samples-through-the-wall doping scandal in Rio. I would put nothing above the Russians, especially not movable ceiling vents.
I really could have used Dr. Rodchenkov when I tried to leave my dorm room in Sochi and the doorknob fell off with the door still locked. I would have gladly paid him back with a free urine sample or two. But it’s amazing to think that, with the world worried about an international incident in Sochi, members of the country’s intelligence service were focused on pee replacement.
That tells you how much Russia values gold medals. And it explains the movement to ban Russia from the Games. We may not understand or approve of Russia’s priorities and actions. But the Olympics are not a gathering of those who have earned our approval. They are an acknowledgment that the world is a big, messy place, but for two weeks, we all get together anyway.