Skip to main content

Hilary Findlay is an associate professor, Department of Sport Management, Brock University, St. Catharines, Ont.

The International Olympic Committee has refused to issue a blanket ban against Russian athletes participating in the Summer Olympics, which start in less than two weeks in Rio de Janeiro. Following the release of last week's investigative report into state sponsored doping in Russia, pressure had mounted on the IOC to issue such a ban, seen as necessary by some in order to maintain the credibility of sport and to ensure a fair playing field for athletes.

In refusing to impose a ban, the IOC passed the responsibility to the individual international sport federations to determine athlete eligibility to participate in the Games. The International Association of Athletic Federations has already imposed a ban on Russian athletes, except for those who meet some very strict testing conditions.

A blanket ban on all athletes would have robbed clean athletes from participation in the pinnacle event of their careers. Those advocating for a broad ban must see this as simply unfortunate collateral damage in the battle to protect the ethical basis of sport – the end justifies the means.

But such a ban would not clean up sport and would certainly not ensure the Rio Olympics is free from doping-cheating athletes. Cheating at the Olympics (and other events) is nothing new. A report about violations in 2014 from the World Anti-Doping Agency reported doping offences from 83 separate sports and more than 100 countries. Russia was high on the list but also near the top were Italy (123 infractions), India (96 infractions), Belgium and France (each with 91 infractions). Cheating is not limited to Russia.

Clearly, many athletes were caught up as part of the Russian doping scheme; however, as noted by Canada's Richard McLaren, author of the report released last week, timelines precluded him from investigating specific athlete malfeasance. Further, not every sport was identified in the report in conjunction with the test fixing. To tar every athlete in every sport as a cheater is simply wrong and undermines the principles of fairness and due process.

As well, it is dubious that a blanket ban would garner credibility for the IOC. Its credibility is a function of what it has done in the past (much less than it should or could, thus the credibility gap regarding its approach to doping) and, more importantly, what actions it takes going forward. A blanket ban would not fix what's wrong.

A greater imperative should be placed on other global institutions to step up and take action, particularly the international sport federations whose sports were identified in Mr. McLaren's report. Some argue that the federations do not have the capacity to take action; that should not be used as an excuse to relieve them of responsibility but as part of the broader problem in need of remedy. Others suggest that Russia should be stripped of international hosting opportunities, including the 2018 FIFA World Cup previously awarded to it.

That would at least start to allocate consequences to more than just the athletes. In the same vein, perhaps the IOC should more closely scrutinize members of the Russian Olympic Committee and its close ties with the country's Ministry of Sport. Interestingly, Mr. McLaren's report did not impugn the ROC but did document dubious connections and activities between its executive members and officials within the ministry responsible for the "fix."

The immediacy of the Rio Games should not be a reason to a rush to judgment regarding every athlete. Mr. McLaren's report shows that the rot is deep, and previous investigations show it is encompasses more than just Russia.

Long-term solutions will be difficult to find. Definitive action needs to happen; however, a blanket ban on athletes would have been a knee-jerk reaction that might have made some feel action was being taken. But that would do nothing to ensure a clean playing field in Rio, or elsewhere, and would irreparably undermine fundamental values of fairness espoused by the anti-doping movement. Its credibility wholly rests upon upholding these values.

Athletes want to be assured they are competing on a level playing field but they also need to be assured that they are being treated fairly and in accordance with the principles of due process. A blanket ban of all athletes, including included clean athletes, would not have been consistent with fairness, would not have sanctioned those primarily responsible for the current debacle and would have done little to ensure all other competitors are clean.

In the immediate future, it's up to each country's sport federations to clean up the mess. But this doesn't let the IOC, or WADA, off the hook for one moment. It does, however, keep intact at least some faith in the system – and we always have retroactive retesting, the second wave of which recently identified another 54 dopers from the London and Beijing Olympics.

Interact with The Globe