They did what was expected. It was the least they could do, aside from nothing at all.
Friday evening, council members of track and field’s international governing body made a gesture that resembled governing by suspending Russia from competition. The action is provisional and time-indefinite and unprecedented. Whether it will amount to anything more than bureaucratic theater will be revealed soon enough.
Russia deliberately and systematically undermined the global anti-doping rules that form the gossamer-thin barricade between functional competition and performance-enhanced anarchy.
Its athletes and their enablers are hardly the only scofflaws in the greater race to top the medal table at the Olympic Games, a platform for pure ambition that also serves as a proxy for less admirable geopolitical rivalries. And it strains credulity to think that track and field is the lone diseased limb on Russia’s sports body politic. But for now, Russia’s sports establishment, with regard to track and field, is the only fiefdom to have been completely exposed — in hundreds of pages of compelling evidence amassed by the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Independent Commission — as a willful, top-to-bottom fraud.
Can anyone believe that a bunker that took so long to build could be dismantled in a matter of months? That a system so efficient at lowering the blackout shades will suddenly let the sunshine in? That the IAAF — an entity whose immediate past president is under criminal investigation, whose current president once referred to his predecessor as a “spiritual leader,” whose attitude toward every allegation until this last crisis erupted has been reactive and defensive in the extreme — can be an instrument of reform?
For those who remain sanguine, here’s something to keep in mind. A little less than two years ago, Russia hosted the Winter Olympic Games. As always, WADA sent a team of independent observers to monitor the anti-doping operation, which at the Games is overseen by the International Olympic Committee, with much of the laboratory and collection staff provided by the host country.
This is how the WADA observation team (IO) concluded the executive summary in its Sochi report:
“The IO was granted full cooperation by the IOC at the Sochi Games. Collectively, the IO members had participated in over twenty past IO missions and none had ever experienced such a collaborative approach between the IO and the IOC. Overall, the IO was of the view that the Sochi Games were a milestone in the evolution of the Olympic Games anti-doping program and that the initiatives observed will, if further progressed, have a positive and long lasting impact for clean athletes in the future.”
It didn’t matter how well-intentioned and qualified those observers were. They were up against an impenetrable and implacable vertical system. All that singing around the campfire didn’t stop the Russians from setting up a secret dummy lab in Moscow to pre-screen samples. It didn’t stop undercover Russian agents from intimidating lab employees. Later on, it didn’t stop the Moscow lab director from destroying 1,400 samples after the WADA commission explicitly asked to have them preserved. We have no idea how many athletes in other sports would have been implicated if those samples had been safely stored. That act of sabotage came a mere 10 months after a big white animatronic bear cried synthetic tears at the Closing Ceremony as it bid the world farewell before the torch was extinguished.
Turns out Sochi was a testing milestone, just not the one anybody imagined. It was a $51 billion showcase for Russia to test how much it could game the system.
By what criteria will a new Russian order be measured, and who can accurately measure it if Russia was able to pull off its smoke and mirrors act under the noses of the IOC and WADA in Sochi?
Russia’s anti-doping agency is an oxymoron, on the way to being declared as such by WADA, which also yanked the Moscow laboratory’s accreditation. In about a month, Russian sports officials and politicians will get a hearing before the IAAF, which will then set further terms for the suspension and eventual reinstatement.
It’s hard not to see this process scrolling forward in a predictable way. Harsh words will be spoken. Policy paperwork will pile up like snowdrifts. Magical thinking will be applied to corroded science and cheating. There will be much discussion of the idea that WADA should take over global drug testing, with no immediate way to compel countries to invest in what would be a logistically gigantic and costly operation. Not to mention the question of who would be competent or free enough of conflicts of interest to run it.
My guess is that Russia will be off the track for six months. During that stretch, the country will forfeit its plan to host the world race-walking championships, a grimly humorous coincidence, since Russia winked when its own banned athletes in that discipline continued to compete. Russian athletes will not be able to enter major marathons, which seems fitting, since one of its runners, Liliya Shobukhova, doped her way to multiple victories in Chicago and paid to have positive tests buried. The world junior track championships, scheduled for July in Kazan, will be relocated.
Those penalties are small potatoes as opposed to real meat.
The one measure that could begin to re-establish credibility for Russia and the IAAF alike is a sanction with muscle, a sanction that dips into wallets and causes psychic pain. And that would be a suspension that keeps the Russian track and field team out of the Rio 2016 Summer Games. Whatever percentage of athletes who compete clean will be collateral damage, and that would be an unfortunate necessity.
Or, WADA and the IOC could decide their 15-year-old anti-doping infrastructure is unworkable, and start suspending athletes with doping violations for a few games or at most a season, like U.S. professional leagues do. That’s an unlikely concession for inhabitants of a sporting planet who have always wanted to portray themselves as a little higher in the firmament.
This is a tipping point moment, not just for Russia or the IAAF or WADA or the IOC. It’s a tipping point for an increasingly dysfunctional Olympic model that is already creaking under the skewed economics faced by host cities. It’s a tipping point for the relevance of Olympic sport as considered by an ever-more-distracted and justifiably skeptical audience. What happens now will be a clear road signal to other nations and athletes who are weighing the risk-reward ratio of cheating.