Big sports, big politics: Russia sees ulterior motives in Olympics ban

Though the Russian public have no more love for athletic doping than the rest of the world, many in Russia see the decision to ban it from the Olympics as a political, rather than athletic decision.

Leonhard Foeger/Reuters
IAAF President Sebastian Coe is seen in a TV camera's viewfinder as he attends a news conference after the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) council meeting in Vienna, Friday.

Barring a last-minute miracle, Russia's track team won't be going to the Rio Olympics this summer.

The International Association of Athletic Federations announced Friday that its council unanimously voted to uphold the ban of Russia's track and field team from competing in international competitions, including the 2016 Olympic Games, due to broad and systemic doping among its athletes. IAAF doping expert Rune Andersen said at the IAAF press conference that "The system in Russia has been tainted by doping from the top level and down."

"This is terrible news for our athletes," says Kirill Belyakov, a former hockey star who now works as press agent for Vladivostok's hockey team. "They've been working hard for four years, and now this blow. Younger athletes might be able to look forward to the next Olympics, but for many this was their last chance. It's a going to be a huge trauma for them, and intensely demoralizing even for the younger ones."

Moreover, Russian athletes and officials say that the decision is only going to exacerbate tensions between Russia and the West, due to what they say singles out Russia for a doping problem that is international in scope.

"We have been struggling against doping here in Russia, just as they are doing the world over," Russian disc thrower Nikolai Serdyuk says. "It's not a Russian problem, it's a problem of dishonest athletes. But now, Russia's reputation is tarnished. Everyone is looking at Russian athletes as if we are a bunch of scammers."

A culture of corruption?

While it's true that athletes from many nations have been caught doping, the nature and scope of Russia's alleged offenses are unusually egregious. If the accusations are true, Russia not only ran a state-sponsored doping program but also essentially engineered a sweep of the 2014 Sochi Olympic medal count by hijacking the anti-doping testing program.

The crisis began in November when the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) issued a damning report that accused Russia of carrying out a systematic, state-sponsored doping program, primarily among track and field athletes. After that the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) blacklisted the entire Russian track and field team and warned that unless there was major progress in ending not only the doping, but the culture of doping alleged to prevail in Russia, the entire Russian team could be banned from participating at Rio.

Just this week WADA issued a deeply negative update, citing major problems in retesting athletes, including allegations of deliberate avoidance schemes.

The allegations against Russia were given global resonance by media exposes of Russian doping practices, especially an interview with the former director of Russia's anti-doping laboratory at the Sochi Olympics, Grigory Rodchenkov.

After he was forced to resign in the wake of the report, he described how he had administered drug cocktails to some of Russia's biggest Olympic stars and subsequently defeated the international testing system by swapping their tell-tale urine samples for clean ones. He told the New York Times that a man he believed to be from Russia's FSB spent significant time in his lab leading up to Sochi, apparently to figure out how to circumvent the supposedly tamper-proof caps on the bottles used for storing urine.

Russia claims to have tried hard in recent months to address the storm of criticism, and the Kremlin has staunchly denied persistent charges that doping is a state-sponsored enterprise. But, as the sports ministry's main anti-doping adviser, Natalia Zhelanova, tweeted in a resigned tone last week: "Reforms are under way but our system won’t be perfect immediately – cultural change takes time."

The International Olympic Committee could yet choose to ignore the IAAF's conclusion. And under a caveat that the IAAF adopted, individual Russian athletes may yet be allowed to compete if they can show themselves to have been clean under a monitoring regime outside Russia's own system.

Moreover, some Russian athletes have already promised to sue the IAAF over its decision. But it looks highly unlikely that Russia's track and field team will be able to compete in Rio – a result that Vladimir Putin and many Russian athletes who claim innocence view as collective punishment.

"If an athlete is caught doping it's already a harsh punishment," says Lyukman Adams, a Russian triple-jumper of Nigerian descent. "But why should we all suffer? I don't care about politics, I want to participate, to compete, to realize my dreams."

"A person who is punished should realize why he is being punished. This is not fair, and it will stay with people for a long time," says Yevgeny Ter-Avanesov, Mr. Adams' trainer. "This is not fair punishment, it's just a wish to ruin. It's like conviction before trial, and yet we have no way to appeal it."

Several Russian Olympic athletes interviewed in recent days insisted they do not use drugs, and that the controls on doping in Russia are as tough as anywhere in the world. On the other hand, Sky News found a Russian runner who'd tested positive for banned substances, Tatyana Firova, who argued that doping is just part of the system.

"A normal person can take banned substances if they want to," she is quoted as saying. "So why can't athletes take them as well? How else can we achieve high results?"

Big sport and big politics

Polls suggest that Russian public opinion is no more tolerant of doping than in most other countries. A survey conducted by the state-funded VTsIOM agency in March found that 76 percent of Russians think the national sports establishment needs to eradicate doping "by any means." Just 17 percent thought the use of performance-enhancing drugs was permissible.

But the same poll showed the Russian public to be defensive about the allegations against its sports people. About two-thirds of respondents believed any violations by Russian athletes to be "isolated cases," while a quarter thought the allegations were politically motivated, to pressure Moscow over its foreign policies.

Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko varied his statements between pledges to root out the problem and dark complaints that Russia was being singled out for punishment. That's an allegation that many Russian sports people echo.

"Big sport is closely related with big politics. So if someone wants to hurt Russia, they can find some fault and keep amplifying it and building it up," says Alexei Tishenko, a famous Russian boxer and twice Olympic champion. "No matter how much we want sports to be free from politics, and just work things out among sports people, politics always interferes. And we athletes are hostages to this situation."

Oleg Shamonayev, an editor of the Moscow daily Sport Express, says Russia has been quite open in recent years, with many foreign trainers working with its teams and many Russian athletes training abroad.

"The problem is that the IAAF has no Russians among its top managers. There are Americans, British, French, Australians, but never Russians. I'm not suggesting a conspiracy against Russia, but these are the people who create the atmosphere. I'm sure if you took any big sporting country, and subjected it to constant checks and re-checks, you will find all kinds of interesting problems. We know that such scandals take place in many countries, but it doesn't lead to such sweeping measures against them. That's why we have the impression that Russia is being used as a whipping boy on this issue," he says.

Regardless of whether politics were a factor, the ban will hurt Russia's athletic prowess, says Vadim Khersontsev, a senior trainer for its now-banned track and field team. "This will definitely have an impact on the inflow of young athletes and the morale of those who continue in these sports," he says. "We need to survive a very difficult time coming up, and the danger is that we can lose the next generation of our athletes."

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