- The IOC's decision to ban Russia from the 2018 Olympics is an important step but not a complete victory. Russian athletes are still allowed, which diminishes the message.
On Tuesday evening in Lausanne, Switzerland, international headquarters of the battered Olympic (Movement? Do we still call it that?), members of the International Olympic Committee announced that Russia’s Olympic team had been banned from participating in the upcoming 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, as a penalty for operating a vast, state-sponsored doping program that included brazen cheating at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. There will be no Russian flags, no Russian anthem and no Russian dignitaries spending bloated per diems and wearing team swag. There will be Russian athletes. Stay with me here.
It’s exceedingly tempting to celebrate this ban of the Big Bad Russians as a watershed moment in the interminable war against doping. One of the most successful "teams" in the recent history of the Olympics cheated with breathtaking audacity, was caught and now will be punished in a very public way. Russia, and before Russia the Soviet Union, has long used athletic_and most pointedly Olympic_success as a means of demonstrating its national might. (And let’s be honest: We do the same thing here in the U.S. of A., co-opting Shaun White or whomever to validate our greatness, at half-pipe?). There’s little doubt that this is a harsh punishment on a symbolic level. The absence of Russian flags and anthems from the Olympic Games will be jarring. The Russian Olympic athletic system will surely suffer. A message has been sent.
But the tangible effects of the ban are more slippery. The public thrives, now more than ever, on big, sweeping moments and victories. Wins. This is inarguably a victory in the doping wars, but it is just one victory and could be less significant than it appears. The Russians were not caught principally by officials in the anti-doping system. They were caught by whistleblowers and journalists, most pointedly Rebecca R. Ruiz of The New York Times, whose work spawned the investigations that resulted in Tuesday’s ban; and also fillmaker Bryan Fogel, whose Icarus also shined a light on the system. It is naïve to think that such a unique case as this will shut down doping in Olympic sports. (Just as the end of the East German machine did not).
There’s plenty of evidence that anti-doping has improved in small, incremental steps, but remains a climb uphill against potent nationalistic and economic forces. The scientists and officials who are fighting for clean sports remain the equivalent of junior firemen, rising each morning and battling the inferno of illegal drug use with their little buckets and shovels. This moment, while jarring and in many ways satisfying, does little to change that reality.
Moreover, Russian athletes will compete in South Korea. They must prove themselves clean, as determined by an IOC panel. This of course is problematic and paradoxical. On the one hand, the IOC has banned Russia for a massive corruption of the anti-doping infrastructure, in effect proving that cheating is possible on a large scale. And on the other hand, the IOC has left open the door for Russian athletes who are "clean" as determined by the same anti-doping infrastructure that their nation proved was corruptible. (Yes, the Russian labs that enabled the cheating have been shut down, but the mistrust remains). Russian athletes were subject to similar vetting for participation on the 2016 Summer Olympics; ultimately 111 were banned, and 278 participated. Those 278 athletes won 56 medals, fourth-most among all nations that participated. It was a largely toothless ban.
This ban hits much harder. The removal of anthems and flags, the primary totems of Olympic ceremony, is a significant blow. But many Russian athletes will pass their doping tests (even if they have been effectively cycling their drugs for months in preparation) and win medals in Pyeongchang. Bet on that. They will wear a neutral uniform, but they will also be classified as an "Olympic Athlete from Russia," and given a three-letter classification to match this designation—OAR. This designation alone undercuts the ban. And there will be suspicion attached to any medals won by Russians, as there should be. The neutral uniforms and playing of the Olympic anthem for any such medalists will only serve to call attention to the hypocrisy of their presence. (Why allow the use of the name "Russia?" That is a fearful walkback).
The most effective statement would have been a full ban of all Russian athletes. Is that fair to those athletes who have never cheated, and in some cases who have trained entirely outside the Russian athletic system? It is not. But the Olympics, while contested by individual athletes, are at their core a meeting of nations. Athletes wear the colors and the flags of the countries they represent. Flags are raised and anthems are played. Yes, at times it is all a little bit much, and athletes have increasingly nation-shopped for opportunity. But at many other times the connection between athlete and nation is the heart of the Olympic Games. Usain Bolt’s Olympic gold medals were won for all of Jamaica and that was a very real connection. That’s just one example. The presence of any Russian athletes in South Korea diminishes the jarring effect of today’s ban. It is a half-measure. A full ban would have sent a much more chilling message.
It’s also important to understand that Russia is banned because its doping was so audacious and so widespread that cracks developed in the conspiracy. They are not the first nation to sponsor doping: The aforementioned East German machine of the 1970s and 1980s and, of course, the Soviet Union. But most doping in 2017 is not state-sponsored doping. Most doping is done quietly in small training groups, with needles stuck in the privacy of a bathroom and with just a few people aware. It’s paradoxical that an intricate system such as that for which the Russian flag has been banned is, thankfully, more vulnerable to the actions of brave whistleblowers like Grigory Rodchenkov and Vitaly Stepanov, who were vital to unmasking the Russian government operation; yet the smaller doping operations linked not to counties but to rogue coaches and even shoe-and-apparel companies, operate largely in darkness, with few cracks. They will always be harder to snag. The science of anti-doping remains locked in a pitched battle with the science of doping, with little indication of imminent victory.
Tuesday was unquestionably a day for celebration. Bad guys were caught and punished. Yay. But fundamentally, little has changed. Perhaps the cheaters felt a jolt of fear. That will pass. The victory is incomplete. The battle against doping will continue for as long as there are medals and prize money.