The latrines that failed a stress test in the Olympic Village are the perfect emblem for the International Olympic Committee. You can see the shoddy innards and peeling plaster on that wilting, corrupt organization in its refusal to issue a blanket suspension against Russia for state-sponsored doping. The IOC is such a broken toilet that the only athlete it decided to definitively punish is the whistleblower, Yulia Stepanova.
State-sponsored doping is different from other doping. It’s one thing for an individual to take certain risks with his or her health to help him or her perform better than a competitor. Every aspirational working person alive does that to a certain extent, from a roofer on vicodin to a college professor on ritalin. It’s a personal choice. But state-sponsored doping is something else entirely. When athletes are pressured to take a needle or a pill at peril of displeasing a governmental strongman and given substances without informed consent, when officials are told to cover up positive tests and have to flee the country for telling the truth about it, that’s a human rights violation.
It’s a critical distinction, and it’s a distinction the IOC declined to make, because it’s too busy climbing into financial beds with said governmental strongmen. There was zero chance the IOC was ever going to penalize their business partner Vladimir Putin, who gave them a $51 billion construction project in Sochi. Thomas Bach’s declaration that the IOC decision on Russia “was reached after hard debates” was laughable. They debated for three hours, not even long enough for one of the ice sculptures on their buffet tables to melt.
Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko cheerfully announced he was “grateful” for the decision.
The IOC used the rights of individual athletes as its cloak. Bach claimed the IOC wanted to find “the right balance between collective responsibility and individual justice.” That’s a noble sentiment, but it would be more persuasive if the IOC didn’t constantly trample over individuals, whether in displacing them from homes to make way for Olympic structures, or failing to protect peaceful protestors from arrest in China, or sanctioning athletes for not wearing the correct sponsor label.
If the IOC was really concerned about individuals, it would allow Stepanova to compete.
Stepanova, an 800-meter runner, has been cleared to resume competition by the international track and field federation. She served a two-year drug ban from 2011 to 2013, fully paid her debt and showed enormous courage in outing the Russian state program. The IOC has left the decision on whether to ban other Russian athletes to 28 individual sports federations — so Stepanova, 30, should be able to compete, right? Wrong. In Stepanova’s case, her reward from the IOC for exposing the Russian doping system is an individual ban for failing “ethical requirements,” as well as for technical reasons. The IOC, that champion of individual rights, reasons that it has no system in place to accommodate an individual athlete under a neutral flag.
Hosts of other Russian athletes will compete in Rio, but not Stepanova. The IOC has given sports federations less than two weeks to approve Russian athletes if they pass “an individual analysis of each competitor’s anti-doping record, taking into account . . . the specificities of each sport and its rules, in order to ensure a level playing field.”
The result of this directive is that various federations are rushing to declare Russian athletes eligible for Rio. The International Tennis Federation confirmed before Sunday was over that Russia’s seven tennis players can compete.
But Stepanova can’t. With this, the IOC has basically sent a warning to any other whistleblower: Embarrass the IOC and its bureaucratic partner, the World Anti-Doping Agency, which sat on evidence of Russia’s state-sponsored doping for years, and you will be punished for it not once, but twice.
There are no doubt some innocent athletes among the Russian contingent. This did not have to compromise the IOC’s ability to issue a ban on the entire state. Athletes who can absolutely prove they passed drug tests that weren’t administered by their state’s tainted system easily could have been allowed to compete under a neutral or blank banner. Instead the IOC issued a Putin-pleasing decision rife with unreasonable inconsistencies: Justin Gatlin can compete after serving a doping ban but Stepanova cannot?
Russia is hardly the only large-state offender. Other countries, including the United States, have, at the least, turned a blind eye to systemic doping at times. But in no other case has a national government colluded on the scale that Russia did, using its national agencies and even its police to falsify drug test results.
The IOC’s refusal to sanction Russia calls into question the entire purpose of its anti-doping effort. Why does it even exist? Originally, the stated purpose was “to protect the health of the athlete.” But the fact is, the only health the IOC cares about is its own.