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Time for introspection

Juliet Macur, New York Times News Service, Dec 9 2017, 22:33 IST
With the IOC allowing select Russian athletes to participate at the 2018 Winter Games, Evgenia Medvedeva will be keen to make the most of the opportunity. REUTERS

With the IOC allowing select Russian athletes to participate at the 2018 Winter Games, Evgenia Medvedeva will be keen to make the most of the opportunity. REUTERS

On Tuesday, less than 10 weeks before the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, we finally got a glimpse of what it takes to push the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to the edge of its cushy armchair and force it to stand up for the integrity of sport.

It wasn't bribery of a potential host city winning the Games through lining pockets. It wasn't a host country passing an anti-gay law or allowing censorship of the internet or a city breaking its promise to create an Olympic legacy by cleaning up its polluted skies or harbor.

And it wasn't a realisation that countries like Brazil or Greece shouldn't be pressured into building insanely expensive venues, when those buildings are often left to rot after the Games.

This time, the IOC was stuck with a scandal that it could not sneak out of. The Russians were caught doping their athletes and hiding positive drug tests, and they did it in such a bold, subversive way that it could be fodder for a le Carré spy novel.

The Russians compromised the IOC's product, wrecking the concept of a level playing field, and that, finally, made the IOC take notice.



The Olympics could be a money grab flooded with lies and political favors and dominated by countries using their wealth and sporting prowess to show off their power. Sure, the IOC could tolerate that.

But competition itself cannot be considered a joke. The results can't be fiction. Sponsors wouldn't go for that. Viewers might not tune in.

So, in came the long-lost integrity police. And out went the Russians. They are barred from the 2018 Games for what IOC President Thomas Bach called an 'unprecedented attack on the Olympic Games and sport,' though some to-be-determined number of Russian athletes will get to participate if they can prove some to-be-determined degree of performance enhancing drug-free living.

It took Bach a year of investigators' nitpicking through details and documents before he pretty much decided that, well, yes, that initial report was true.

To that, clean athletes everywhere should say, well, finally.

"It's a good step for clean athletes," said Lowell Bailey, an American biathlete and current world champion who has been outspoken about doping. "But it's a dark day for Olympic sport. I think most athletes who compete clean would say that they want the broadest field of competition at the Olympics because that's just the spirit of competitiveness. No one wants to show up and have a weak field."

He added: "I'm glad that the IOC has taken these measures, but I do hope that this stands as really a turning point for the defense of clean sport."

The IOC appears to be taking this rules-breaking seriously for a change, and it shows in the way they are handling Russian athletes who want to prove their innocence and compete in Pyeongchang. An independent task force will determine which Russian athletes will be invited to, let's say, try out for the games, which will be held in February.

The panel of experts will scrutinise the athletes' drug-testing records to look for any suspicious results. The key is that the officials won't be those from international federations, which are the global governing bodies of sports. Because when it comes to those federation officials, unbiased they are not. Those organisations are in charge of their sport's rules, marketing and membership, and are ultimately responsible for the sport's success and growth. So making their sports look good is their job.

Before the 2016 Games, the IOC made such international federations responsible for vetting Russian athletes to see which ones would compete in Rio. It didn't go well.

The international swimming federation charged an eight-person panel with devising a plan on how to screen its athletes for the Games. The panel came up with strict standards to determine which swimmers should be barred from the Games, based on criteria like previous drug positives or suspicious blood profiles. The federation looked at the suggestions, considered the suggestions - and then, without any explanation, tossed the suggestions.

Three officials on that panel, including the chairman, quit in protest because the swimming federation ignored their advice. In the end, the Russians dove into the pool in Rio, just like everybody else - as if their country followed the rules, just like (most) everybody else.

"Keeping the federations involved is like the fox watching the henhouse," Travis Tygart, chief executive of the US Anti-Doping Agency, said.

The IOC threw Russia some bones. Their athletes who compete in Pyeongchang will be identified as 'Olympic Athlete from Russia,' giving them the snappy acronym OAR, and those OARs may be able to march as Russians during the closing ceremony. But Russia's jig is up. Its Olympic committee has to reimburse the IOC for the costs of the investigation and pay a $15 million fine, which isn't that much given that the Russians spent more than $50 billion to host the Sochi Games.

Some Russians are wearing T-shirts that say, "No Russia. No Games," hinting that some of the populace is calling for a boycott of the Olympics, meaning that the clean Russian athletes who would have the opportunity to compete still wouldn't participate in the Games.

But athletes don't want that. The American Lowell Bailey doesn't want that.

Bailey started cross-country skiing in preschool. He transitioned to biathlon when he was 15, and his podium dream had time to percolate. It took him until his 30s to finally make a World Cup podium, in 2014. He finished third, while a Russian biathlete was second. In time, Lowell moved up to second when the Russian was caught for having doped.

"I tell people now that I finished second, and that feels good and I have that on paper, in writing, but it doesn't hold a lot of weight in terms of emotional value," he said.

So many athletes have suffered at the hands of Russian athletes and coaches and sports administrators - so far 11 Russian medalists from Sochi have been sanctioned and were stripped of those medals.

The sheer brasenness of the operation served as a wake-up call for the IOC, one that finally made the organisation take on Russia, when it could've just backed down.

But it didn't. For a change.

It's important. Let's see if the IOC will follow through. Bach may just do it because his organisation's future is at stake. The whole idea of the Olympics might be at stake.

"I think the most important thing that hangs in the balance is that kids all over the world, future Olympians, are watching this," Bailey said. "I hope the IOC knows that we cannot lose the integrity of the Olympic movement. It's just too valuable."

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