The International Olympic Committee’s window-dressing decision to suspend Russia doesn’t really touch the “state” part of “state-sponsored” doping. Oh, a few Russian crested blazers will have to skip the little cakes with white diamond fondant icing at the dessert buffet. No matter. The Russian ministry already got what it wanted from its willing partner the IOC, which was the oligarchical rake-off from Sochi’s immense buildup. The medal haul was merely ornamental. Kind of like the gold flakes in the cappuccinos.
The IOC deserves no great congratulations for what can only be termed its moral entrepreneurship in sanctioning Russia. The IOC and World Anti-Doping Agency remain a harrumphing, selectively enforcing, self-dealing intentional failure of a bureaucracy that couldn’t even plug a mouse-hole in the Sochi drug testing lab, for the simple reason that it didn’t want to. We still wouldn’t know of that hole’s existence if not for whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov. All the IOC has really done is ban a song and a swathe of fabric from PyeongChang, and unfairly stigmatize Russian athletes along the way.
The Russian flag will not fly and the anthem will not be played in a Winter Olympics no one is much interested in. Russian athletes may compete under a neutral flag if they are individually approved (the IOC essentially managed to approve no fewer than 278 for the Summer Games in Rio), and various “officials and support staff” will be welcome at the IOC’s discreet invitation. Also the Russian Olympic Committee from PyeongChang may be allowed back by the Closing Ceremonies. Exactly how this will chasten Vladimir Putin and his Sochi ski buddies is unclear.
It’s perhaps faintly embarrassing, though there is a real question as to whether the chest-baring former head of the KGB is embarassable.
It would be pleasant to think this will deter all of the other IOC state actors who have systematically participated in performance enhancement or turned a blind eye to it (large portions of the USA apparatus over the years included), but that’s highly unlikely. If the IOC had really wanted to discourage “state-sponsored” doping, it would not have awarded an Olympics to a state that practically invented it.
Here is when you will know the IOC is serious about doping: not when it lowers a flag, but when it knocks down and razes WADA for the pocket-lining bureaucracy that it is, and starts clean. Really clean.
You will know the IOC is serious on this subject when it declares a blanket temporary amnesty for the purpose of studying some very hard questions. Such as: What is the difference between enhancement vs. therapy and recovery? Have the effects of certain substances been overstated or overcriminalized? To what extent, if any, might legalization actually relieve the pressure on athletes in state-sponsored systems? Are these public condemnations doing any good, or are they just resulting in failed policy and coverups?
Most importantly, what is the real purpose of an anti-doping effort in the first place? The IOC blares that it is to protect “clean sport.” But the evil of state-sponsored doping is not that it results in “unclean sport,” or makes people “dirty.” The evil is it might result in a violation of human rights, rob individuals of informed consent.
Would it not be healthier and cleaner for all to bring these systems above board and examine what athletes and trainers are doing in the collective light of day? What do we really fear from performance-enhancement legalization, or at least deeper inquiry into it?
The IOC’s official anti-doping effort was launched in 1999, and it has yet to act as a meaningful deterrent, much less address any of these difficult questions. Instead, it has merely created a moral panic. And moral panics are worse than ineffectual; they result in greater evils than the original sin. They literally spread poisons.
Prohibition was one example. The xenophobic Victorian amateur code was another. But moral panics do serve one group well: the moral entrepreneurs who gain power and profit off them. So long as the IOC and WADA insist that doping is a global moral crisis and create occasional villains, they can continue to command huge resources to “police” it. It is interesting to note that WADA President Sir Craig Reedie has been campaigning energetically for a massive budget expansion, even lobbying that WADA should get a cut of Olympic TV rights and sponsorships.
The hallmarks of moral panics are disproportionality, exaggeration, stereotyping, rushes to convenient judgments and the creation of boogeymen, villainizing certain parties as The Other responsible for moral decay. Sometimes The Other is an Indian who took money to play baseball. As social psychologists will tell you, moral entrepreneurs are expert at preying on social anxieties.
Russia is merely the latest arch-villain in our long-running moral panic over performance enhancement. To be sure, state pressure on athletes to perform is an issue that should make us all wince, and ask, what can we do about it? But the answer is not nearly as simple as the IOC would have you think, and it’s certainly not resolved by the banning of a song or a flag while stigmatizing fellow humans as “dirty.”
Is the Russian Olympic Committee really worse or dirtier than any number of other state actors in the Olympic movement? Is it any more or less reprehensible than a United States Olympic Committee that was willfully blind to an epidemic of sexual abuse, in which scores of young athletes felt coerced by authorities into working with rampant serial pedophiles? Now there is something worthy of banning a flag over.
Moral panics don’t end well. Rather, the things they spawn while people are in the grip of them look nonsensical once the anxiety has passed. Like Prohibition, or Jim Thorpe, they eventually leave you cringing, with bloated agencies that are widely ignored, selective enforcement that serves only those consolidating power, and with greater corruptions than the one they set out to cure. Mainly, they leave societies regretful years down the line, and embarrassed by their gross hypocrisy.