If you watch the Aug. 5 opening of the Summer Olympics in Brazil, take note of the torch lighting that traditionally opens the Games. This year, the flame could serve as a symbol of the fire lit under world sports bodies in recent years by honest athletes who, challenged by the doping scandals of their competitors, are strongly embracing integrity in sports.
Last week, under pressure from clean contenders, the International Association of Athletic Federations decided to ban all of Russia’s track and field athletes from the Rio Games. The unanimous decision by the IAAF, the global governing body for track and field, was quickly backed by the International Olympic Committee.
The ban is a triple jump in restoring fairness in world sports. Russia, a big medal-winner in previous Olympics, was accused last November by the World Anti-Doping Agency of running a state-sponsored doping program. Even after being given months to reform a deep-seated culture of doping, Russia was again charged by WADA last week with systemic doping and cover-ups.
While some Russian athletes may be clean of banned substances, the decision to impose collective punishment was made necessary by the strong probability of Russian cheating at this year’s Games. The inventive evasiveness of many Russian officials and athletes was made clear in WADA’s reports. If the country’s track-and-field athletes were allowed to compete, the fairness of the entire Olympics would be at stake.
To its credit, IAAF said individual Russian athletes could compete if they prove they have been training outside of the Russian system without the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
That opportunity – a legal “crack in the door” – helps highlight the need for the IOC to return to a focus on the Games as a test of individual performance rather than national pride. In Russia, many athletes were reportedly forced to participate in doping if they wanted to be accepted on the national team.
Sports involves not only a contest to establish winners but as a measure of the ability of humans to transcend physical and mental limits. Athletes must rely on natural abilities, such as agility and concentration, not special chemicals. And they must be able to operate on a level playing field to ensure honest competition.
Those athletes who practice these qualities have been the driving force to clean up international sports. Russia must now move unambiguously to clean up its sports system. In the meantime, fans of the Olympics can applaud this August when an athlete raises the torch to start the Rio Games.