If you happen to watch the Winter Games this February in South Korea, take an extra close look at the athletes. Most will, of course, exhibit the finest qualities of sports, such as excellence, discipline, and teamwork. But lately they have also showed immense integrity. Top athletes around the world were a leading force behind the Dec. 5 decision of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to ban Russia from the event over its state-sponsored doping program in the 2014 Winter Olympics.
“The voices of the clean athletes have been heard,” declared a committee of athletes at the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) after the decision.
For several years, athletes have taken part in grass-roots movements demanding that the Olympics stay true to their ethical values, especially fairness to fellow competitors and a respect for natural abilities over doped-up performances.
Each sport has its own effort. Weightlifters, for example, have a #iLiftClean campaign. Skiers have participated in a “Clean as Snow” campaign, which included YouTube interviews about their commitment to clean sports. At a world event last winter in Finland, many skiers signed a giant snowball and proclaimed “NO! to doping.”
In addition, many athletes have posted videos at My-Moment.org, saying they will not again be cheated out of winning medals, as many were at the 2014 Winter Games, where Russia took nearly a fifth of the medals. WADA is now spreading an annual celebration of Play True Day to encourage clean sports. And last year, a group in the United States started the Clean Sport Collective to fight against doping.
This momentum, says Olivier Niggli, WADA’s director general, will help “create a world where the clean athlete prevails ... a world where athletes choose to stay clean out of self-respect,... and for the pure joy that sport brings.”
In its decision, the IOC did leave a door open for athletes from Russia to compete at the coming Games in Pyeongchang – if they can pass rigorous testing for banned substances. But they will be treated as “neutrals” with no ties to their government. The IOC and its sporting federations know that the battle against doping is difficult to win – despite improvements in testing – without the help of athletes who want to stay clean. Many nationalities, not only Russians, have been caught cheating.
The Olympics, along with other sporting events, need to remain values-driven rather than prestige-driven – or the kind of rampant nationalism seen in cheating by the Russian government.
“Preserving the integrity of sport must be our number one goal today,” says WADA President Sir Craig Reedie. As witnessed in the IOC decision, that integrity was well played by thousands of athletes.