If you’ve been following the first few days of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, you’ve doubtless noticed athletes in drab uniforms representing OAR. Those are Olympic Athletes from Russia folks, and their presence at this games underlines what a sham international athletic competition is.
Though their nation and its colors are banned from this year’s Olympics due to the doping scandal which rocked the 2014 games in Sochi, 168 athletes cleared by the IOC have been allowed to compete statelessly.
Now, before I go getting on my high horse, I should say that the field of professional sport is basically synonymous with chemical enhancement and abuse. Anywhere that huge profits are on the line, athletes and the organizations that oversee them are going to take whatever steps necessary to ensure a win. From grand slams, to defensive backing, Tours de France, and the luge, doping is as endemic to sport as gross food is to spectatorship.
And normally the corruption around doping in sport doesn’t get my goat all that much. Barry Bonds slamming more homers into the nosebleeds is good business for him, the team, and the MLB at large, so who is going to come running with accusations? When these things do come to light the organizations put on a show of disgust, we join them in the media, and two weeks later there is a new team doctor, and Barry makes a show of contrition. The profit-seeking odyssey continues. These are corporations trying to make money, how else do we expect them to behave?
However, the Olympics constitute a different animal altogether. Here athletes are assembled to represent the high ideals of sportsmanship, in a friendly international competition intended to foster comradery among nations. It’s a highfalutin kind of thing that blends nationalism and competition – we’re supposed to play fair.
So, when allegations surfaced that the Russian state and Olympic team oversaw a massive doping program to ensure victory at Sochi, that not only flouted the spirit of the games but the sacrifice and effort of the hundreds of athletes who elect to compete without chemical enhancement.
Though the Russian foreign minister and Putin himself have dismissed the doping scandal and its star witness Grigory Rodchenkhov as an American conspiracy to prevent Russia from winning, that theory seems to hold no water. In a detailed investigation, the IOC found that there was systematic doping on Russia’s part, it then banned 43 athletes from the games, demanded that they return their medals, and banned Russia from the 2018 games.
Except, not really.
39 Russian athletes appealed their verdicts and 28 of them had them overturned and their medals given back. Then 168 Russian athletes were cleared for competition in this games.
Though I doubt that any of them have the gall to continue to dope in Pyeongchang, it seems like this punishment could not be more toothless.
These athletes were allowed to train with the full apparatus of the Russian Olympic team. Does the IOC sincerely believe that because they were banned the team would shutter its infrastructure and demand that the figure skaters practice their lutzes in backyard rinks? Take the presence of Albert Demchenko – a doping-disgraced luger and head of Russia’s luge team (yeah, still) – at the track in Pyeongchang as evidence. These folks are still training with and supported by the Russia Olympic organization, the same people who doped so enthusiastically in Sochi.
There’s also the matter of calling the cluster of Russians competing the ‘Olympic Athletes from Russia.’ See it there? Where it still says Russia? Whose craw is that supposed to stick in, exactly? The Russians have already spun the story to make this seem like an American conspiracy to keep them out of the games, so this whole charade now looks like noble martyrdom back home - sure, they won’t let us compete under our colors, but look at our athletes soldiering on and representing our country despite the corruption of America and the IOC.
I’m not sure if the IOC has taken a peek at international relations in the last decade, but Russia doesn’t exactly put much stock in international opinion or public shaming by international organizations. Just ask Crimeans.
While the IOC can forbid Russian athletes from wearing their colors or singing their anthem, it can do no such policing on the spectators. 150 figure skating fans took to the stands in full Russian regalia over the weekend, reminding everyone that Russia is still very much present in these games.
There is the argument that these athletes are not dopers, and do not participate in the decision making that turned their country into the world’s most efficient doping agency. That depriving them of an opportunity to compete would be the height of unfairness given their devotion and hard work.
To this I say, tough. If the IOC was actually looking to take a hard stance on doping it would have banned Russia and its athletes altogether. Yes, it would have deprived young people of their moment in the spotlight, and that sacrifice would have been the point. If a nation is going to engage in state-sponsored chemical enhancement, then it no longer gets to compete. Period. This toothless symbolism has done nothing to preserve the integrity of the games.
As it stands, the farce at this Olympics proves what the international community already knows: there are no consequences for Russia.