This week the International Olympic Committee banned Russia from the 2018 Winter Olympics. I thought that no matter what the evidence the IOC leaders would avoid the political repercussions of punishing the team that won the most medals four years ago. Why did they do the hard thing – even when it was the right thing?
1. Russia is being banned from the 2018 Olympics because they cheated on the drug testing four years ago. Cheating at drug testing has been going on as long as there have been drugs to test for. What makes the Russia 2014 experience different was that the cheating seems to have been organized by the government officials. In the past when athletes have been caught, the different Olympic committees could always shake their head in surprise and say they had no idea that athlete was using steroids.
After nearly four years of investigations, the IOC believes there is evidence that the very people who should have been (trying to) insure the athletes were drug free, were the ones put in place ways for their dirty athletes to test as clean.
2. Russian President Vladimir Putin naturally said his country was innocent. Putin said the findings by the IOC were a conspiracy theory trying to shame Russia. Conspiracy theories are handy. We do not need to refute evidence with other facts. We can all just say it is a conspiracy theory without proving a thing.
Did Canada cry foul in 1988 when Ben Johnson lost his Olympic Gold Medal because of a failed test? At first, we all thought (and hoped) that there was a mistake. In time, we came to get a glimpse of the real world of competitive doping in the Olympics.
3. Clean Russian Athletes are still allowed –
Just before the 2016 Summer Olympics, facts on the Winter Olympic doping cover up were becoming public knowledge. Instead of banning Russia, the IOC left it up to each sport to decide which individuals would be banned. With only weeks to go before the games, it was impossible to sort out who was clean and who was dirty.
With 62 days until the start of the games, the clean Russian athletes can still participate in the games. They would have to play under the Olympic flag. If they win it will be credited the Olympic flag.
Vladimir Putin will still allow his Russian athletes to compete under the Olympic flag. That might be as close as we come to seeing an admission of guilt, or at least an acknowledgement that Russia accepts the punishment.
4. Banning a nation is a precedent –
Olympic boycotts have been used for political purposes for more than fifty years. In 1968 two negro American medal winners shocked the world. During the medal ceremony the gold and bronze medal winners each raised a black-gloved fist, and kept them raised until the anthem had finished. It doesn’t sound like much now – but in that day it was a big political statement.
In 1976 most Black African countries boycotted the Montreal. In 1980 many western countries, including United States and Canada, boycotted the Moscow games to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Four years later the Soviets and their allies boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles games in retaliation for the 1980 boycott. These boycotts (and many more) were initiated by individual people or countries.
From 1964 – 1988 South Africa was banned by the IOC because of their apartheid policies. Once apartheid was abolished South Africa was welcomed again. In 1948, Japan and Germany were banned for starting World War 2. They were back in the games four years later. In 2000, Afghanistan was banned from the Sidney games because of the Taliban’s discrimination against women.
In time, these past political bans were lifted. How long will the Russian ban last? Since this punishment was based on events from 2014 it is possible that it will be a one time ban.
5. What next for the Olympics?
When the modern Olympics were started, they were supposed to be the chance for fair play and celebration of the best of sports. Will the Russian ban create a permanent rift between unofficial alliances? Will we enter a new era of boycotts or bans?
All we know for sure is that the Winter Olympic Hockey tournament that has been so engaging with each country’s best is a not what we are used to. If the non NHL Russian players decide to do hockey under the Olympic flag, the Olympic flag would be a favorite to win its first hockey gold. If that is confusing then welcome to the 21st century Olympics.