The indignation expressed in some quarters this week over Russian athletes being allowed to compete at Pyeongchang 2018 under the banner of “Olympic Athlete of Russia” is something I don’t understand.
Whether you allow a Russian athlete to take part under that soubriquet, or under the title of Authorized Neutral Athlete (ANA), as the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) did when it found a bold and effective way to allow clean individuals from a tainted system to compete in track and field from 2016 onward – it doesn’t greatly matter.
Everyone knew, for instance, that when they watched Darya Klishina, the only ANA competitor in track and field at Rio 2016, sprint down the runway, they were watching a Russian athlete.
And everyone knew, the defending IAAF World Championships women’s high jump champion Mariya Lasitskene retained her title as an ANA competitor in London this summer, she was doing so as a Russian.
Whether the agreement that has now been reached between the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) has been orchestrated or not, the route is now open for deserving Russian athletes to take part in the Winter Olympics next year.
The warnings of “humiliation”, the clear threats regularly aired that Russia would boycott the Games if the IOC attempted to paint them into a corner – now we do not hear them.
Of course, there’s another thing we do not hear either – and that is a Russian acknowledgment that they established a state-run doping system. Or a Russian apology for doing so.
That has been the clear implication of the McLaren Report commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which arrived in two parts in July and December of 2016, and of the IOC’s own Schmid Commission which reported earlier this month.
Alexander Zhukov, President of the ROC, who has been suspended as a member of the IOC as a result of the scandal, was among those who spoke up in support of letting Russia’s athletes compete at Pyeongchang 2018
But Zhukov denied that the ROC or the Russian state was involved in the doping program uncovered at Sochi 2014. A total of 31 Russian medalists at those home Winter Olympics have so far been banned by the IOC, many of them high profile champions.
Zhukov continued to lay the blame on Grigory Rodchenkov. The former director of the Moscow Laboratory and self-confessed mastermind of a program which he claimed had been set up with the help of the Russian Government, has since fled to the United States and is now living in hiding.
“The Schmid Commission gave an exhaustive description of Rodchenkov and his accomplices,” said Zhukov.
“They caused enormous damage to Russian sports and the international Olympic Movement.”
The damage is not in dispute. The nature of the “accomplices” is.
A Russian acknowledgement/apology remains one of the key elements required by WADA before the way can be cleared to bringing the Russian Anti-Doping Agency back into the fold. So how that matter is going to be resolved, as things stand, is a mystery.
Meanwhile, as insidethegames reported earlier this week, the ROC plans to set up a working group to liaise with the IOC, who have established their own commission under member Nicole Hoevertsz, to discuss which Russian athletes will be eligible to compete at Pyeongchang 2018.
A delegation from Russia is due to travel to Lausanne tomorrow to hold further discussions with the IOC.
Invitations to compete at Pyeongchang 2018 will be decided by a panel headed by Valerie Fourneyron, chair of the new Independent Testing Authority, and which will also include Richard Budgett, medical and scientific director of the IOC, and one person each appointed by the World Anti-Doping Agency and the Global Association of International Sport Federations’ Doping-Free Sport Unit.
As the comments on our story indicate, opinions differ on just how strict this new judging body will be over the criteria to allow Russian athletes to compete as individuals.
But when that body of individuals, be it great or small, turns up in South Korea, will the arrangements made by the IOC for their competition be appropriate?
“Olympic Athlete of Russia” is surely no more than a statement of fact. And the fact that any OAR medalists will not take to the podium under the Russian flag, or hear the Russian anthem should they be standing atop it, is a meaningful public sanction.
Speaking in Monaco last month, Russia’s 2015 world 110 metres hurdles champion Sergey Shubenkov, who took the silver medal in his title defense this summer as he competed in London under the ANA banner, spelled out how it felt to operate in such circumstances, having been allowed back to competition this year following clearance by the IAAF.
“Initially I said there was no difference at all, but I admit it was to get those thoughts away from my own head,” he said, with a rueful grin. “That is why I was smiling when I came over the finish line in this year’s World Championships final. Because this was the only possibility to compete and competing is the most important thing in our lives.
“I have tried not to think too much about the overall situation, although of course I have been looking forward to Russia’s reinstatement as soon as possible.
“I was the defending champion in London, but I missed 2016. Of course it made a difference. That’s why I got the silver medal, not gold.
“But you know generally I think I had a good season. Despite a silver I managed to win the Diamond League, I managed to score a nice performance of 13.01, which is just three hundredths slower than my personal best.
“Of course there was pressure, bad emotions. I was constantly thinking of how this would go. So considering all that I think this has been a good season.”
Asked to look ahead at the possible choice facing Russian winter sport athletes in relation to Pyeongchang 2018, Shubenkov added: “If, as an athlete, I was given a choice to compete neutrally or not at all, of course I would accept competing in any form. To take any chance of going and scoring the best possible result. Or winning, of course! Because to my mind that is the best way to express your position – to go, to compete and to win.
“But it puts athletes under extra pressure when they are not sure if they are going to the Games or not – they still have to train their best and to be prepared for going.”
That last pressure remains on Russian athletes as they await confirmation of their fitness to compete at Pyeonchang 2018 from the new IOC panel.
As history has already told us in the case of the state-run doping campaign run by East Germany throughout the 1970s and 1980s, athletes in such a system are by and large coerced; by and large, victims of the system.
Despite the denials, it is continuing to look like a similar picture in Russia. So as long as it is clear that those Russian athletes allowed back have submitted themselves to sustained and reliable testing beforehand, there is no sense or virtue in trying to deny where they come from. They should be seen as being a genuine credit to Russia. That is the obvious way forward.
Nor is it correct to insist that Russian athletes who have incurred doping infractions in the past should be ruled ineligible to compete.
It’s a valid point of view – but only if the rule is applied to everyone equally. Otherwise, it appears to be skewed and unfair opportunism.
By Mike Rowbottom
Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.