PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The athletes have arrived, and the global media have descended at the PyeongChang Olympics. And yet the dark cloud that formed at the previous Winter Games remains at the start of these. International Olympic Committee officials were still navigating final decisions on how to handle Russians found to have participated in a state-sponsored doping program, and athletes were still reckoning with the damage done and lingering uncertainty.
Russia’s widespread doping at the 2014 Sochi Olympics — and an IOC response that has been criticized as inconsistent and meandering — already has affected these Games. On Wednesday evening, 32 Russian athletes still hoping to compete had verdicts delayed when the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) adjourned a hearing without resolution. The delay means the number of Russians permitted to compete may not be determined until Friday morning, the day of the Opening Ceremonies.
“I hope we will have as soon as possible the results from CAS,” IOC President Thomas Bach said. “I do not know more.”
The final questions prompted by last week’s controversial decision by CAS to overturn Olympic bans for 28 Russian athletes remain unanswered, fitting for a drawn-out saga. The World Anti-Doping Agency released an initial report on the Russian program in 2015, and the McLaren Report deepened the evidence and case against Russia in July 2016. Despite ample warning, IOC officials allowed a scandal at one Olympics to seep into another.
“The timing of all this is ridiculous,” U.S. biathlete Lowell Bailey said. “I mean, thank God that they’re at least looking into it and not pushing it forward another year. But yeah, we had the opportunity two years ago to review the evidence. I just think, unfortunately, the political rhetoric is somehow a clash between the West and Russia. It’s not about that. It’s about clean sport.”
Bailey hopes IOC punishments will provide a deterrent, “but I really think the jury’s out on that. I think we have to wait and see what happens. And the fact that we have to wait and see, four years out from the events in question, the timing of that is pretty bad.”
Even with the IOC banning the Russian Olympic Committee, at least 168 Russians could compete in Sochi under the banner of Olympic Athletes from Russia. There will be no official Russian delegation, the Russian flag is not permitted to be flown, and the Russian anthem will not be heard. But there will be plenty of Russians competing and winning medals, and they have a clear presence.
Olympic Athletes from Russia maintains an office in the Main Press Center, just steps from the U.S. and British offices. A man in the OAR office said its role is to assist Russian athletes with the media and to provide logistical support with matters such as ticketing — part of the role of any national committee. “It’s like any other Games,” the Russian official said.
Bach would not speculate on the outcome of the pending CAS rulings and did not explain what the IOC’s options might be if CAS rules in Russia’s favor.
Bailey, an athlete representative for biathlon, said a representative of the IOC panel told him there would be no retroactive invitations to Russian athletes. “If that changes,” he said, “then that’s them going back on their word to me.”
The ordeal and mixed messages have tested the faith of athletes that these Games will be competed on a fair playing field and prompted many to implore IOC leadership to do more to promote and protect clean athletes. Their voices formed a chorus of dismay.
“Every athlete from any nation feels the same way,” said Canadian Kaillie Humphries, a two-time bobsled gold medalist. “Creating that fair and open place to compete, it shouldn’t be something we have to think about. You shouldn’t wonder if you’re facing somebody who’s had unfair advantages.”
American skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender, who missed out on a bronze medal by four hundredths of a second to a Russian later ensnared in the doping scandal, cast the fight — and plight — of clean athletes as a battle for the future of the Olympic movement. Uhlaender said she received taunting messages from Russians on social media after the CAS ruling but also heard from athletes who told her the decision eroded their faith in the system.
“Right now, it’s not just me,” Uhlaender said. “A lot of athletes feel like we’re believing in a movement that is dying.”
The system “did fail clean athletes,” Bailey said. “It did not protect the right to fair play. We’re at a watershed moment right now. It’s really up to the IOC, WADA and the international federations to take a definitive, decisive stance. Where are you going to come down?”
Canadian luger Sam Edney had a similar experience to Uhlaender’s. He thought his team would receive a medal after Albert Demchenko and Tatyana Ivanova were found to have doped before Sochi, only to receive a shock when CAS ruled.
“Last week, not only us but all clean athletes experienced a step back in this continued fight when this gift was potentially removed as a result of this CAS decision,” Edney said. “I feel this has to stop. This whole situation is disturbing to our team and, we believe, a nightmare for clean athletes. We are encouraging the IOC to push for another appeal.”
At an IOC session Tuesday, Canadian IOC member and former WADA head Dick Pound leveled a verbal broadside at Bach, saying the IOC originally “dismissed” the result of multiple investigations into Russian doping in Sochi as “mere allegations.” He said both athletes and the public no longer have confidence in the IOC.
“It’s important to identify that the IOC’s conduct — our conduct — in the matter of the Russian doping activities have caused outside the fairly comfortable cocoon outside the IOC session,” Pound said. “I believe that in the collective mind of a significant portion of the world and among the athletes of the world that the IOC has not only failed to protect clean athletes but has made it possible for cheating athletes to prevail against the clean athletes.”
Pound suggested that the IOC wanted CAS to open the door for more Russians to participate and called for an examination of the composition of the CAS panels.
“Tonally, I would say more attention has been paid to getting Russian athletes into the PyeongChang Games than dealing with the Russian conduct,” Pound said. “Every effort has been made to give a distinctly Russian profile to the athletes invited to participate. I’m sorry, but that is not an appropriate response by the IOC to a flagrant attack on the Olympic Games and on clean athletes by Russia.”
Still, in an email to The Washington Post, Pound said it would be a “fair bet” these Games will be cleaner because the Russian punishment will serve as a deterrent. He called for the IOC to implement more advanced testing and to store samples for 10 years.
American luger Chris Mazdzer captured the sentiment of several athletes. He wanted to focus on his event because he had no control over his competitors or IOC decisions. But he still could not stifle his frustration.
“Even if we are going up against people who could have potentially doped, we still have the ability to be 100 percent confident with ourselves,” Mazdzer said. “I mean, it was state-sponsored, systematic, but I think there’s ways we can still go 100 percent and still be the best in the world.”
In the next breath, he said: “And I am also really disappointed with CAS’s decision.”
“I’m confident in the decision-makers,” American luger Tucker West said. “If they determine they’re clean, then they’re clean. It’s not really my business to go digging in there. My business is to just go out there and beat them.”
Bailey said he believes the IOC’s choice to ban Russian athletes from competing will eliminate dopers — “we have maybe our best chance of having a clean field that we have ever had,” he said. But he also wants the IOC to use its influence to help clean up his sport. Russia’s noncompliance with international doping policies — including the loss of two biathlon medals in Sochi — didn’t deter biathlon officials from holding the World Cup final this year in Tyumen, Russia.
“I feel like the last few years, especially the last year, I have been very uncertain about whether the people around me in a race are clean or whether they’re cheating,” U.S. biathlete Susan Dunklee said. “That’s a very frustrating position to be in as an athlete. I worry about the future of our sport.”
Her concerns echoed across sports. One after another, athletes here expressed qualms about the fairness of their sport and called for further protections to be taken. Most athletes in Korea will be competing against each other but also will be banded together.
“We’re all fighting the same fight,” Canada skeleton racer Jane Channell said. “We’re all fighting for clean athletes.”