Throughout my time covering the Olympic Movement – about 15 years – we have tended to take a pretty dim view of the boycott-marred 1970s and 1980s.
If they served no other useful purpose, we have generally concluded, the absences affecting the 1976, 1980 and 1984 Games demonstrated that politicians should butt out of sport, since their meddling harmed only their own countries’ athletes.
Happily, with some of those appearing, or failing to appear, at the events in question now running the show – Thomas Bach, Sebastian Coe, Nawal El Moutawakel – there seemed every reason to think that this lesson had been learnt.
And with Bach’s skilful, lawyerly, if sometimes overly smug hand on the tiller, the cause of sporting autonomy appeared to have a fair wind in its sail.
How times have changed.
A year ago next Friday, a dawn raid by police on a luxury Zurich hotel plunged the football governing body FIFA into disarray, and now I find myself wondering if sport is condemned to be the arena for a new outbreak of USA-versus-Russia cold-war-style sparring, the like of which we have not seen for a generation.
To be fair, the present crisis has been brewing since a few months before the FIFA raid when, in the days running up to the Extraordinary Session at which International Olympic Committee (IOC) members approved Bach’s Olympic Agenda 2020 reform proposals – and how bitterly ironic does that timing now appear – a German television documentary was aired alleging widespread doping among Russian athletes.
That storm had appeared to be blowing itself out, with the planets seemingly aligning for the resultant suspension of the All-Russian Athletic Federation by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to be lifted next month, in good time for Russian track and field stars to take their places at Rio 2016.
Then, on May 12, lurid new claims by former Russian Anti-Doping Laboratory director Grigory Rodchenkov – alleging that numerous home medal winners at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics were implicated in a doping programme in which anabolic steroids were mixed with alcohol before urine samples were switched in a clandestine night-time operation – were published in the New York Times.
Now, all bets seem to be off, with Bach acknowledging that, if these allegations are proved true, the consequences might include “exclusion of entire national federations” and that sports leaders may have to “make the difficult decision between collective responsibility and individual justice”.
The investigation that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has now launched is due to be completed by July 15, just three weeks before the Rio Opening Ceremony.
In the United States, however, patience seems to have snapped: on May 17, the United States Justice Department – having set off the chain of events that has resulted in regime change in world football – was reported, again by the New York Times, to have opened an investigation into Russian doping; three days later, Scott Blackmun, chief executive of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), spoke of a “defining moment for international sport” and a need to “find a way to assure the athletes in Rio that they are competing on a fair and level playing field”.
The impression is building that the Americans have concluded that Russian athletes should be kept away from Rio, prompting the question: how will the Russians react?
We may have got part of the answer yesterday, when Yelena Isinbayeva, poster woman of Russian track and field, reiterated that she would see a blanket ban as a violation of her human rights and said she would file a lawsuit if the current suspension were not lifted.
Might Russia be tempted to boycott altogether? Well, if they did, it is hard to imagine more than a tiny handful of friendly nations following in their footsteps.
One should also bear in mind that Russia is the next host of world sport’s other transcendant mega-event, the FIFA World Cup; this might foster a certain moderation in its reaction to any perceived injustices in the run-up to Rio.
If you think, by the way, that I might be exaggerating the potential seriousness of the situation in time-honoured journalistic style, here is the view of a grizzled veteran of many Olympic crises.
“I think there is a real risk of turning back to cold war politics,” this individual told me, somewhat to my surprise.
“This is without question one of the most sensitive issues to hit since Salt Lake.
“You can see how this could spiral into a really ugly cold war scenario.”
That said, there are of course many differences from the situation three or four decades ago.
This time the pretext for a group of athletes’ possible absence from the Olympics is at least sporting in nature, which was glaringly not the case in 1980.
The sustained broadcasting and sponsorship windfalls have also made elite sports institutions such as the IOC, and some athletes, far wealthier than they were a generation ago, imbuing them with the means to better protect their interests.
It promises to be a bumpy and perilously unpredictable ride over the next seventy-odd days to Rio, and beyond.
But Bach and his IOC colleagues – though preoccupied in the short term by Brazil’s many current problems – do retain some room for manoeuvre, even if you sense their cards must be skilfully played.
The Beijing 2008 and London 2012 re-tests should allow the IOC President scope to argue, should he see fit, that the cheats are being excluded from Rio via that route, rendering any form of blanket ban unnecessary.
Latest reports suggest that 14 Russian athletes are among the 31 said to have tested positive following re-analysis of samples from Beijing, and that the country might lose nine medals as a result.
‘Any Americans?’ I hear you cry; as I write this, it looks unlikely.
Should IOC members decide, meanwhile, that the degree of US pressure over Russia is becoming unreasonable or unwarranted, the body’s decision-making mechanisms allow them the wherewithal to push back.
One obvious focal-point for such resistance is the Los Angeles 2024 Olympic and Paralympic bid, which will require a majority of IOC members to vote for it next year if it is to be successful.
I have already detected signs that this sort of connection is being made within the IOC – a body that has acquired a reputation in recent times for a certain mild anti-Americanism, even if, since Bach’s arrival in the top job in 2013, this sentiment had appeared to be very much on the wane.
If I were on the LA 2024 bid team, in other words, I think I would be urging US sports leaders to soft-pedal their concerns regarding Russia and Rio for the next few weeks, now that the issue is firmly on the front-burner.
Hollywood loves a sequel.
But Cold War II is a rare example of a follow-up blockbuster Tinseltown is better off without.
By David Owen
Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz