Russian athletes and the Rio Olympics

The Olympic Games in Rio are approaching, and despite a number of protests, some Russians may be present. The International Olympic Committee has been heavily criticized for not issuing a blanket ban on Russian athletes because of widespread doping there. Let me say at once that I cannot condone doping, but there is also a question of natural justice. Basically, the logic says:

Some Russian athletes doped

Doped athletes should be banned from competing.

So, what is the logic conclusion? Mine is, some athletes, and specifically the ones who doped, should be banned, and that includes athletes from any country who have doped. As it happens, the initial call for a total banning of Russian sportspeople has been rejected, instead relying on a dubious procedure in which various sports federations will be required to produce a list of Russian athletes they believe to be clean, which will be checked by an arbitrator from the IOC and a court of arbitration. Any Russian with a doping conviction will automatically be banned, including Stepanova, who has finished her punishment for previous doping. Fair? Then why will there be many athletes in Rio who have previously doped but have completed their punishment. We have uneven rules here.

At one point, the Russian athletes were given an “out”. All they had to do was to prove they had been clean through a sequence of tests in non-Russian laboratories that were run during the last few months. That is impossible to comply with, because nobody can go back in the past and do what has to be done. So why put in such a silly rule? My guess is quite simply there are a number of Russian athletes who have been residing or training in the US, and to include them in the ban would leave whoever issued the ban open to a serious law suit in US courts, and my guess is that there would be a number of major law firms just queuing up to take on the contingency case. That sort of ban could easily cost tens of millions of dollars at a minimum. So the rule was not there to be helpful; it was there to cover backsides. Whatever you think about that, the IOC, by passing the buck down to various sports organizations, has opened those up to the same lawsuits.

There is a further interesting thing about the Russian doping allegation: the criticism is the dopees (if that is a word) escaped notice because the second samples got “lost”. Sure, that stinks, but what is of interest here is that nobody has questioned the laboratories’ analyses (as far as I know). What that means is that Russian athletes that have always had clean first analyses should be in the clear. This is of relevance because the IOC has argued that it must make sure all athletes play on a level playing field. Well, the level playing field means that everyone else should have to go through the same vetting process. That is not happening.

Exactly what went on in Russia is unclear. The fact that a Canadian Professor produced a report, commissioned by an antidoping agency, which accused Russia of state sponsored doping does not mean that the report is accurate. The losing of second samples is indicative of something going wrong, but that does not mean the state ordered it, nor is it obvious that the state had the power to do so. Serious corruption would suffice. The problem is evidence, and what is remarkable about this report is that the details do not seem to have made a significant public appearance. We are told what it concluded, but that does not make it so. I seem to recall high level government “reports” that Saddam Hussein had huge numbers of weapons of mass destruction, and could attack London with a fifteen-minute warning. The existence of a report is irrelevant; it is the evidence backing up the conclusions that is important.

Another point that I would like to see is that if Russians are banned, nobody else can take their place. The reason I say this is that the most vociferous calls for all Russian athletes to be banned appear to have come from callers who could reasonably be considered to have friends, acquaintances, or athletes from their own country on the verge of qualifying. If there were a blanket ban on replacements, other than for clear sickness or something unavoidable, then that would mean that any potential conflict of interest would be removed from those calling for the ban, and even more importantly, from those voting.

To summarize, I have a simple view. All athletes should play by the same rules. Guilt should be personal, and based on the evidence against that person. The judges should be independent of the outcome. Rules should not be backdated. If testing organizations are found to be corrupt, then they should be disqualified and from that point, other independent organizations should be used.

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