When news broke three years ago that Russia had fixed the Olympics, it was a big deal. A movie was made about it. It won an Oscar.
People were drawn in by the John le Carré aspects of the story – hidey-holes in laboratories, doctored results, mysterious deaths. The whole thing was so Russian.
But as much as the relevant governing bodies tried, they never could rouse much outrage amongst casual fans of the Olympics (which is all of them).
That’s the problem with turning the Games into a once-every-two-years branding opportunity. People will continue watching it, but they aren’t going to continue treating it like a holy rite. Once you profane the temple with money, it’s only a matter of time before anything goes.
Hence, the reaction this week when WADA (the World Anti-Doping Agency) announced that Russia is apparently at it again.
As a condition of being readmitted to the Nancy Reagan Sporting Abstinence Society, Russia was asked to turn over all its doping data going way back. The files it submitted do not match those handed over by a Russian whistleblower. WADA has given Russia three weeks to explain the discrepancies. All sorts of penalties and bans are being mooted if it can’t, or won’t.
But we know how this works – Russia kicks the ground and says, “Why you always picking on me, mister?”; the world puts its fists on its hips and tries to look moral; Russia refuses to say sorry; at the next Olympics, all Russian athletes wear orange jumpsuits and their national anthem is replaced with Yakety Sax.
The difference this time around is that no one who isn’t directly involved in this mess cares.
When this first broke, it was front-page news. Today, it’s a sidebar down the back page of the section. That’s because this is no longer a story about right against wrong, or a moral reckoning on the world stage. It’s not nearly that exciting.
It has instead become a continuing human-resources issue at a poorly run corporation. None of the employees understand the rules, because they are enforced so haphazardly.
As a result, everyone’s lost the plot. The bosses are drunk at lunch. People steal all the good pens out of the supply room. Someone at a meeting said, “You know what’s cool? Surfing.” And no one in charge had the sense to tell them to sit down and shut up.
That’s not a story that gets the blood up. It’s too small and grubby. It’s powerful people doing what regular people do – cutting corners to get ahead.
By repeatedly drawing attention to it, all WADA has accomplished is make everyone involved appear feckless and dimwitted. And not in that order.
Russia is at the top of that list. These guys once turned the British security establishment into a branch office of the KGB, but now they can’t come up with one decent cover story. Didn’t anyone in Moscow think of the old, ‘Oh, you meant those doping reports. Yeah, we lost those in the last move,’ trick?
It’s easy for people to scream at WADA and the International Olympic Committee about total bans. But those same people probably won’t like where that ends them up.
We know what happens when Russia isn’t at an Olympics because we tried that once before. It wasn’t much of an occasion (though, it did make a lot of money). All the medals won and records set were asterisked.
The boycotts in 1980 and 1984 turned the Olympics into a high-school track meet – fun for the competitors, but lacking real drama. Everyone agreed it had been a terrible idea that they ought not try again. Not because of the politics at play or the risk of nuclear holocaust, but because people were starting to lose interest in the Olympics.
Since every world leader loves big parties at which a) they can grandstand without restraint and b) never see a bill, that was a non-starter.
For a few decades, everyone got fat and happy. Cheating was an issue, but on a small enough scale that it could be largely ignored. Then the Russians had to go and get greedy.
You can’t really blame them. They didn’t believe they’d be seriously punished if they were caught. As it turns out, they were right.
But let’s say fiddling the books when we already know they were cooked is, for some reason, the uncrossable line. Let’s say Russia is banned from the Tokyo Olympics. Not one of these neither/nor bans, but a complete elimination of all Russian competitors without recourse to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. It’s not clear that’s possible, but let’s say someone tries.
Let’s say Russia is also turfed from the 2022 FIFA World Cup and the next track-and-field world championships and the Eurasian Tiddlywinks Derby.
And then what?
At some point, you have to let it back in. Do we really think that that’s when Russia admits it was wrong and crosses its heart never to do it again?
All this does is give Russia another gift-wrapped opportunity to play the international martyr. Putin & Co. might’ve cared three years ago if someone had hung a sword over the FIFA World Cup – an event Russia was due to host – but nobody did that. There was too much cash in play.
This time around, there’s no popular outcry, no sticks, no carrots, no leverage and, therefore, no winners. Everyone loses. Everyone’s lost already, regardless of how this turns out, because everyone looks a fool.
There is only ever one good time to take a principled stand: immediately upon learning that your principles have been compromised. Once you’ve let things slide a few times, we aren’t talking about principles any more. We’re negotiating a deal.
Russia has figured out that the surest way to win a negotiation with the Olympics and its proxies – organizations whose only unshakeable principle is keeping the operation afloat – is by refusing to negotiate.
It’s worked so far. Why would it change now?