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Russia’s sports doping scandal: Why this one may be different

A report on Russia’s drug-fueled cheating in sports comes as the International Olympic Committee realizes it must put an emphasis on ‘clean athletes,’ not just trying to catch the minority of athletes who cheat.

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    Rusty Olympic rings decorate a fence outside the Russian Olympic committee building in Moscow Nov. 9. Russian track and field athletes could be banned from next year's Olympics in Rio de Janeiro after a devastatingly critical report accused the country's government of complicity in widespread doping and cover-ups.
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Yet another doping scandal has hit the world of sports. This time, the World Anti-Doping Agency has recommended that the entire Russian team for track and field be barred from the 2016 Summer Olympics. An investigation by WADA, released Monday, cited Russia’s organized practice of using banned substances to give athletes unfair results in past sporting events.

If the report brings another sigh of resignation among fans about drugs in high-profile sports, it shouldn’t. A string of doping scandals in recent years, from trackster Ben Johnson to cyclist Lance Armstrong, has started to awaken sports officials to the fact that they cannot focus solely on curbing this corrupting practice by detection and punishment. The techniques for doping are changing as fast as the ways to catch cheating athletes. Rather, the culture of sport itself must change.

The Russian scandal comes just as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has launched a program to promote and protect “clean athletes.” WADA believes most Olympic athletes do not use performance-enhancing drugs. The same may be true about athletes not taking bribes from gambling syndicates to alter the outcome of a contest. The IOC plans to spend $20 million to help athletes keep drug-free and compete with fair play.

In September, the IOC officially awarded an Olympic bronze medal to Australian cyclist Michael Rogers – 11 years after he finished fourth in the men’s individual time trial in the Athens Games. The winner of the gold in the event, Tyler Hamilton, was stripped of his medal three years ago. With the IOC’s new emphasis on helping “clean athletes,” the sports body is finally doing something right for those who do not cheat.

“We have first and foremost to protect the clean athletes. We have to protect them from doping, match-fixing, manipulation and corruption,” says IOC President Thomas Bach.

The special three-person WADA commission that investigated Russia’s massive cheating even suggests the Russian athletic program could quickly reform itself. “The idea is to get people competing under the right conditions,” said Dick Pound, chairman of the commission and an influential member of the IOC. “At some point the Olympic movement and the governments have to say: ‘Are we going to do this properly or shall we all go home?’ ” he said.

Catching athletes who cheat is still an important task. Important reforms are needed in the International Association of Athletics Federations, the body that oversees the track-and-field sports in the Olympics. But sports bodies need to better reward athletes who win cleanly and cooperate openly in fending off drug use. The best in today’s sports culture can overpower the worst.

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