The Russian flag will be flying at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro after all, and the athletes from a nation mired in an ongoing drug scandal may be allowed to compete on the sporting world’s largest stage.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) will not impose a blanket ban on Russia for next month’s Games but will leave decisions on individual athletes’ participation to the relevant sports federations.
The IOC’s announcement follows the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) call for a Rio ban in response to the independent McLaren report that found evidence of widespread state-sponsored doping by Russian athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
The world governing body’s ruling 15-member executive board met on Sunday via teleconference – with the Rio Games’ August 5 opening ceremony less than two weeks away –and decided that responsibility for ruling on the eligibility of Russians remains with the international federations.
While calls had been growing for a blanket ban after the damning evidence in the McLaren report, the IOC said that Russians would be able to participate if cleared by their respective international federations.
“Under these exceptional circumstances, Russian athletes in any of the 28 Olympic summer sports have to assume the consequences of what amounts to a collective responsibility in order to protect the credibility of the Olympic competitions, and the ‘presumption of innocence’ cannot be applied to them,” the IOC said.
However, the IOC added that the rules of natural justice mean that each athlete must be given the opportunity to show that such collective responsibility is not applicable in his or her individual case.
‘Spotless record required’
For individuals to be excluded from the “collective responsibility” they must have a spotless international records on drug testing, the IOC said, adding that no athlete who has been sanctioned for doping will be eligible to compete in Rio.
That would include middle-distance runner Yulia Stepanova, the whistleblower and former drug cheat whose initial evidence led to one of the biggest doping scandals in decades.
The report produced by Canadian law professor Richard McLaren described extensive doping and cover-ups across a series of summer and winter Olympic sports and particularly at the Sochi Winter Olympics hosted by Russia in 2014.
The IOC said this week that it would not organise or give patronage to any sports event in Russia, including the planned 2019 European Games, and that no member of the Russian Sports Ministry implicated in the report would be accredited for Rio.
It had also ordered the immediate re-testing of all Russian athletes from the Sochi Olympics and instructed international winter sports federations to halt preparations for major events in Russia.
Since then a series of international federations, anti-doping agencies and athletes have called for a blanket ban, though some have said they are against punishing innocent athletes.
While the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the international body that oversees track and field, has already ruled that Russia would not be permitted to compete in Olympic competition, other governing bodies will have big decisions to make in the coming days.
Many sports federations, such as gymnastics, have already indicated a preference to see Russian athletes competing for Olympic medals.
Bruno Grandi, president of the FIG, the international gymnastics federation, for example, said in a statement last week, “Blanket bans have never been and will never be just.”
That sentiment was backed by the president of the International Cycling Union.
“It would be quite difficult for us to think we should ban an entire team, which will include some cyclists who are not implicated in any of these stories we’ve been hearing,” said Brian Cookson.
“We’re going to have look at it case by case, rider by rider and team by team. At the end of the day, Russians are not the only sportsmen or women who have been found doping.”
Russian officials and government officers have said the doping allegations are part of a Western conspiracy against their country.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had warned that the affair could split the Olympic movement, bringing echoes of the 1980s. The United States led a political boycott of the Moscow Games of 1980 and the Soviet Union led an Eastern Bloc boycott of the Los Angeles Games four years later.
Setting a precendent
No nation had ever been barred from competing at an Olympics for doping, but with sentiment growing against the Russian athletes and questions about whether they’d compete clean in Rio, the IOC faced a difficult decision.
Last week’s damning WADA report charged Russia with operating a state-run doping program spanning some 30 sports.
As the doping scandal grew, more than a dozen anti-doping agencies from around the world banded together to urge the IOC to issue a wholesale ban of Russia from these Olympics, an extraordinary measure that would have included athletes who’ve never tested positive for banned substances or been implicated in the scandal.
The IOC opted not to take immediate action last week, preferring to wait for an important ruling from the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which last Thursday upheld the ban on Russia’s track and field teams.
In June those squads were barred from the Rio Games by the IAAF. The court’s ruling effectively set a precedent that a sport’s international federation had the authority to prohibit certain athletes from competing.
A stain on the Rio Games
Before a single Olympic event has been contested, doping has already emerged as a dominant storyline of these Summer Games.
The IOC and WADA have been trying to cleanse the Rio Games of known cheaters and have been retesting samples from the 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics. They found 98 athletes who tested positive for prohibited substances, including at least 23 medallists from the Beijing Games.
Since competing under the Russian flag, the country has been among the top three or four medal winners in each of the past five Summer Olympics.
Russia, which has traditionally been a power in track and field, wrestling and gymnastics especially, won 79 medals at the 2012 London Games, trailing only the United States (103) and China (88). At the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, it won more medals than any other country – 13 golds and 33 overall – a feat that might not stand the test of time after the IOC and WADA completes their doping inquiry and metes out individual punishments.
The absence of any number of Russian athletes would surely have a major impact on the medal hopes of athletes competing in almost every sport, with the Russian team typically more than 400 athletes-strong.
The last time Russian athletes missed the Summer Games was 1984, when the then-Soviet Union was among 14 communist nations to boycott the Olympics. That year the United States won 83 gold medals at the Los Angeles Summer Games, which is still an Olympic record.
Reuters and The Washington Post