It has become one of the great rituals of world sport. Every few months, you wake up to a screaming headline telling you Russia has been banned from this, that and the other thing, but most notably the Olympics.
Then you get a couple of paragraphs into the story and you realize that while Russia has been sidelined, Russians have not.
A few lines later, you get to the other exceptions and workarounds. After that, you realize there is an appeal process. So we get to do this all over again in a few months.
The rest of the story is a grandstanding stump speech from the officials who imposed the sentence, the people who realize this regularly occurring news event is their political Olympics.
“I’m not happy with the decision we made today, but this is as far as we could go,” World Anti-Doping Agency executive Linda Helleland told reporters in Lausanne, Switzerland. “I would expect now a full admission from the Russians and for them to apologize for all the pain athletes and sports fans have experienced.”
Yes, of course. For all the (sigh) pain you and I have suffered. The last world water-polo championships must have been psycho-ethical torture for you. How you made it through, sports fan, I will never fully understand. Just know that you are my hero.
It is this sort of sanctimonious nonsense that makes you want to root for the Russians. In handling this now years-long affair so haphazardly, the international anti-doping community – every member of it, top to bottom – has managed to turn Russia into an anti-hero.
The process that got us here isn’t quite opaque, but it is so incremental and tedious that it is impossible to follow closely. Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren gave WADA the goods on Russia three years ago. This thing is settled, or should have been.
WADA has spent the intervening time trying to force the Russians to admit passing cheat notes in class. Russia has refused to do so, while shoving paper in its mouth and chewing. WADA yells a little louder. Same result. More chewing.
This is no longer about proving anything. The thing was proved long ago. This is a battle of wills between Western bureaucrats and the Russian state. As history teaches us, Russia’s never been much good at those. Ask the Wehrmacht.
I suppose WADA thinks it has won, but these punishments lack the crucial ingredient – the sense that they are of a higher order than all previous ones.
That’s the shrill language used by WADA – “The biggest sports scandal the world has ever seen.” You’d reasonably think it deserves the most remarkable penalty ever seen.
Instead, we get ‘Russia Sent to Naughty Corner; Won’t Be Allowed Out for Snack Time.’
Monday’s new punishment is the old punishment, accompanied by harder words. It’s also just as porous as the preceding one.
Russia is out of international competition for four years, including the 2020 Games in Tokyo. But individual, “drug-free” Russians may still compete under a neutral banner at the Olympics, possibly a beige rendering of a Coldplay album cover.
If they aren’t “drug-free,” how were they competing in the first place? And if you’re saying the entire Russian system is rigged, how do you know they’re “drug-free” now?
Under WADA rules, whom exactly among us is “drug-free” and how might we prove it? It’s a mystery.
Russia is furthermore out of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Since Russia isn’t all that hot at soccer and hadn’t yet qualified for the tournament, that’s not much of a blow.
It would have been something to ban its team from next summer’s European soccer championships, in which it is due to compete.
But WADA wouldn’t do that, presumably because Russia is one of several hosts and it would cause all sorts of logistical and financial problems. Just so we all understand what matters here is the principle.
The Russians are doing their usual angry dance after such decisions, but they needn’t bother. Everyone tuned this story out ages ago. That’s the problem.
All the players in this drama are too close to matters to notice the underlying issue. Faith in international athletics has not been shaken. It’s been shaken apart. By the same people charged with maintaining faith in international athletics.
By constantly relitigating this issue, by refusing to seal it off with one monumental and meaningful penalty, by dickering in public like insurance lawyers, by using the Olympics as a cudgel, WADA has convinced the sports public that its whole operation is dirty.
It’s been hard for people not to notice that the organization charged with stopping doping globally has had one hell of a time convincing a single country to mind its own shop. And it is further difficult not to notice that having caught it at it dead to rights, it still can’t.
If our justice system worked this way – Sir, you are guilty, admit your guilt; you won’t?; damn, are you sure?; okay, we’ll let you serve your sentence on Saturdays; Saturdays don’t work for you?; damn – there’d be armed mobs in the streets.
When the Olympic justice system works this way, people stop caring about the Olympics.
People will still watch the Olympics because the Olympics are fun and the production values are tremendous.
But does anyone now believe that the athletes are all clean? Or that a strong majority are? That the doping controls work? That there is no incentive to cheat? Or any viable disincentive?
Because the people in charge have spent years telling us the opposite is true. That sports is a darkened landscape filled with shady operators just looking for a chance to switch the urine.
They’re still at it today. They’ll be at it again in a few months time when Russia’s appeal lands.
It’s the equivalent of a bank president standing outside their main branch screaming, “This bank has been robbed over and over again, but I promise you I will catch those responsible.” It’s probably not good for business.
Were I WADA and the International Olympic Committee, I’d want to get shot of the whole business immediately. Bury the Russia file in the deepest sub-basement and quit while I’m ahead. But these guys haven’t been ahead in a long time.