There is a difference between what must be done and what will make things better. The International Olympic Committee ruled Tuesday that Russian athletes will not be allowed to compete under their flag at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in February due to widespread systemic doping covered up by government officials. Individual athletes will be allowed to petition the IOC to compete under a neutral flag, but this will be the exception rather than the rule. For the most part, Russians will not be participating in the Winter Olympics.
This type of punishment—to ban an entire country from the Olympics for doping violations—has no precedent, thanks to the strict individual liability statutes at the heart of the global anti-doping movement. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which oversees the doping rules and regulations governing global sport like the Olympics and World Cup, adheres to the principle that the individual athlete is responsible for what goes into his or her body, and nobody else. If you take a banned substance, you will be banned. There’s a certain logic to this, from WADA’s standpoint, because if athletes can blame others for ingesting banned substances—either by accident or coercion—then almost any athlete could undermine “clean sport” by blaming somebody else. There has to be, WADA reasoned, a zero-tolerance policy.
But the concept of strict individual liability reached its limit with the Russian doping scandal, which first came to light in 2014. When an entire state apparatus conspires to not only dope its own athletes but alter the samples with an extremely intricate and coordinated process to escape detection, the individual actions make up a collective fraud. Individual liability can only go so far.
Banning Russia had to be done. There is no question now, three years on from the first report by the German news network ARD, that the doping scheme happened exactly as alleged by the whistleblowers, Yuliya Stepanova and later Grigory Rodchenkov.
Meanwhile, Russian officials—including and up to President Vladimir Putin, alleged to have been aware of and possibly even ordering the fraud—maintained there was no scheme, no cover-up. It was all a Western plot to de-legitimize Russia’s sporting accomplishments. They referred back to WADA’s strict liability protocol and said if athletes tested positive, they should be banned, but the whole should not be punished by the actions of the few.
This was never about doping. This was about powerful Russian men getting to define their own reality, to decide what is cheating and what is not.
Russia’s refusal to accept responsibility and implement reforms left the IOC with no choice. Part of the notion of individual responsibility is that everyone, including the individuals at the top, have to take responsibility. Without that, nothing could change. There would be no reason to think Russia had learned its lesson. So, in conjunction with the unprecedented ban, the IOC also banned Russian Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko for life, as he was widely considered the overseer of the doping operation as his role of sports minister during the Sochi Olympics (and, currently, the overseer of this summer’s World Cup preparations, to be hosted in Russia, of course).
It had to be done for the IOC’s sake, so it could claim with a straight face that it did something, even if it was many years late and only with a forced hand, after it had intentionally looked the other way when the whistleblowers came to it them first. The IOC will, rest assured, hang its hat on this punishment as a sign of its commitment to clean sport, a warning to would-be cheaters everywhere. The IOC leadership will bring it up again and again to assuage concerns that it’s not losing the war on doping.
But, like most severe punishments, this will only pour salt on old wounds. The odds of Russia taking this well are slim to none; Putin has called a press conference for tomorrow and the state-run television is already doing its thing. Many Russians, and especially friends of Mutko, will only dig themselves deeper into the Western Plot conspiracy. It’s not at all clear when Russia will next participate in an Olympic Games, by ban or boycott. And, of course, this scandal is but a kernel of the larger political context regarding Russia’s relationship with the West.
Which is why everyone who thinks this is about doping, or antiquated notions like fair play, is completely missing the point; the point of Russia going to such extreme lengths to defraud a sporting event, the point of gaslighting in the years since it were busted, the point of the IOC delaying any sort of severe punishment for so long, the point of lying about it even now, and the point of throwing what is sure to be an epic hissy fit in the days and weeks to come. This was never about doping, this was never about sports. This was about powerful Russian men getting to define their own reality, to decide what is cheating and what is not, what is truth and what is lies, what is real and what is fake, and who has the power to decide those things. This was about control, all the way down to the tiny microscopic holes in the sample bottles in the WADA testing lab.