The cost of winning at all costs

A doping scandal means Russia’s teams and flag will be banned from international sports competition for years to come. Will it shame the country into making real reforms?

Mark Humphrey/AP/file
The Russian team marches behind the national flag at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. New sanctions for doping will prevent Russian teams from hoisting their flag or wearing national uniforms.

All of sports is based on the concept of fair play, a level playing field on which the best athlete or team competing that day wins. The world’s best athletes should also set a world-class ethical standard.

The penalties imposed Dec. 9 on Russia’s international sports teams for doping athletes to give them an unfair advantage signal that cheating and a “win at all costs” approach is not acceptable. 

Many athletes and observers in other countries have found these new sanctions too soft. But they may accomplish the most important goal: Depriving those who cheat of the public adulation they crave.

In 2014 Russia sought to win the approbation of the world by not only hosting the Winter Olympics in Sochi, itself a $50 billion extravaganza, but by making sure that it dominated the competition too. Russia won the most medals. Then the widespread and systematic scheme of doping its athletes was uncovered, forever tarnishing that event.

The International Olympic Committee did permit some Russian athletes, after clearing rigorous drug tests, to compete at the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. But they could not wear their national uniforms or fly their flag. They competed as “Olympic Athletes from Russia.”

The most recent penalties on Russia from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) include a four-year ban on taking part in or hosting major international athletic events. But, again, individual Russian athletes who can show they did not take part in the doping scheme and are drug-free will be allowed to compete.

Part of WADA’s renewed outrage was the discovery of a Russian attempt to cover up its 2014 doping scandal and to pin it on an innocent individual. 

The ban applies to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. Russia also will lose the right to host three world championships: volleyball in 2022, ice hockey in 2023, and water sports in 2025. The Russian team at the 2022 soccer World Cup in Qatar will not be allowed to wear its national uniform.

These bans will affect a generation of Russian athletes, some of whom may be tempted to emigrate and compete for another country. The vast majority will stick it out, hoping that their careers will extend beyond the years of sanctions.

Many sports officials in other countries had hoped for a stronger ban. Travis T. Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, called WADA’s ruling a “devastating blow to clean athletes, the integrity of sport and the rule of law.”

But the sanctions are also the strongest imposed on a country since South Africa was denied entry into the 1964 Olympics because of its racial policies of the time. Russian President Vladimir Putin, a sports enthusiast, has tried to make his country into a sports superpower and sports achievements a source of national pride. That effort has been dealt a severe blow.

“When [Russians] win the medals the anthem and the flag go up,” Jonathan Taylor, the head of WADA’s compliance committee, told CNN. “That’s what they care about. That’s when you get the shot of President Putin. You’re not going to get that [now].”

Russia has a long road ahead to persuade the international community that it will make real and sincere reforms. Until then, its athletes must compete under the shadow of a corrupted system.

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