Innocents may pay the price

If Russia is barred from Winter Olympics, figure skating could lose its sheen

Innocents may pay the price
The Olympics continue to spin on a wobbly axis, trapped in a vortex of corruption and doping.

Who should be held responsible for Russia’s systematic doping, which operated furtively at the 2014 Winter Games in the Black Sea resort of Sochi and was exposed by the same man who masterminded its shadowy effectiveness?

Should Russia’s Olympic committee be made to pay by a forced absence from the 2018 Winter Games in February in South Korea? Should all Russian athletes be barred from competing there? Some of them? How does one decide?

And how much blame should the International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency share? Both have been widely criticised for not spending the necessary effort or money over the years to seriously address the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Such inadequacy has brought a corrosive truth: Suspicion of great achievement in Olympic sports is rampant. And the innocent find it almost impossible to prove their innocence.

These are the sobering questions facing figure skating. With its alluring mix of athleticism and artistry, it is the centerpiece of the Winter Games. But as the sport’s Olympic build-up began this weekend on the Grand Prix circuit at Moscow, anticipation was tempered by uncertainty.

“Olympics without a Russian team would look like a meal without salt and pepper,” Alexei Mishin, a Russian coach who has produced three gold medals in men’s skating, said this week at the Rostelecom Cup.

He’s right. Russia has the depth to sweep all three medals in women’s skating at the 2018 Games. It would also be a favourite in the team skating competition. And Soviet and Russian pairs have won a gold medal at every Olympics but one since 1964.

But the International Olympic Committee has not yet decided what, if any, punishment should be meted out to Russia for its state-sponsored use of banned substances, which involved as many as 1,000 athletes. Anti-doping agencies from numerous countries, including the United States, have censured the Olympic committee for what they view as a refusal to hold Russia accountable.

“The IOC has just continued to kick the can down the street, I think, with the hope that it just all goes away,” Travis Tygart, chief executive of the US Anti-Doping Agency, said in a telephone interview.

Denis Oswald, an IOC delegate from Switzerland who is examining the breadth of Russian doping, recently told The Associated Press that he was being prudent, not indifferent. “You can’t just say they were in Sochi and they are Russian and they probably were doped,” Oswald told the AP.

Several dozen anti-doping agencies have called on the IOC to bar Russia’s Olympic committee from the 2018 Games. They jointly proposed that Russian athletes who could show they have passed rigorous drug testing would be allowed to compete as independent, or neutral, athletes.

Grigory Rodchenkov, Russia’s doping mastermind turned whistleblower, agreed with the anti-doping experts in an article he wrote recently for The New York Times. He also said Russian athletes should be sequestered in South Korea and subjected to stringent testing during the games.

“Let’s also be clear that doped athletes in Russia are, in many ways, victims, too,” Rodchenkov wrote. “In the Russian system, they do not have much choice but to cheat, even if some did so enthusiastically.”

In January, Samuel Auxier, president of US Figure Skating, called for Russia to be barred entirely from the 2018 Games. That seems unlikely, given that some Russian athletes were allowed to compete at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The subject is complicated, and the petition for exclusion is not unanimous.

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