The Olympics have abandoned any sense of fair play - it is time athletes considered a boycott
The Games deserve so much better than the calibre of people who run it
It was fitting that the American team reacted to Kamila Valieva’s reprieve with barely-concealed fury. After all, their female figure skaters have yet to receive their silver medals for last week’s team event, never mind any clarification on whether Russia might be forced to give up the gold. Now, the Court of Arbitration for Sport has cleared the 15-year-old Valieva to line up in the individual competition after a positive test for a banned heart medication, despite offering no details as to how, why or by whom the drug was administered. This is not just a muddying of the waters by the International Olympic Committee, under whose jurisdiction Cas falls. It is an abdication of its duty to ensure fair play.
The Americans’ statement in response was damning. “This appears to be another chapter in the systemic and pervasive disregard for clean sport by Russia,” it said. “Athletes have the right to know they are competing on a level playing field. Unfortunately, that right is being denied.”
Two messages are abundantly clear from the Cas ruling. The first is that the Olympic movement, despite a third consecutive Winter Games becoming engulfed by stories of Russian doping, will do anything to avoid embarrassing Moscow on the global stage. The IOC is the organisation that reinstated Russia to the fold within 72 hours of the Pyeongchang Games concluding, heedless of the damage that the country’s state-sponsored doping racket had inflicted on its event’s image. Against the backdrop of that vast malfeasance, it can afford to represent Valieva’s predicament as a mere bump in the road.
The second worry is that IOC spokesman Mark Adams, whenever he is pressed on why Russia are allowed at these Beijing Olympics at all, deflects, insisting it is a discussion for another day. This opaque way of doing business is mirrored in Cas’ handling of Valieva’s case. In announcing the ruling that the teenager could stay and challenge for the individual title, Matthieu Reeb, the court’s director-general, took no questions from journalists. He offered nothing about why Valieva deserved dispensation as a minor and nothing about the increasingly urgent question of why her positive sample went unreported for 40 days.
In defending the Cas decision, Reeb argued that “preventing the athlete from competing at the Olympics would cause her irreparable damage in these circumstances”. It is an unconvincing logic. Surely it will do Valieva greater harm in the long run if, as remains a real possibility, the medals that she wins in Beijing are taken away from her at a later date. The move to let her carry on as if nothing has happened benefits nobody. It does not help the athlete, it does not help her rivals and it emphatically does not help the millions of viewers who would like some guarantees as to the sanctity of what they are watching.
For how much longer can Russia’s opponents tolerate them being handed effectively a free pass? The sense of unease at the Cas verdict is overwhelming: Canada characterises it as “extremely unfortunate” for the athletes, while the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) points out that exceptions are not supposed to be made for mandatory provisional suspensions, even for minors such as Valieva. If even Cas is not inclined to stand up for athletes alarmed at Russia’s behaviour, it begs the questions of what recourse they have left. The nuclear option would be for them to stage a boycott in protest, although the chances are that the IOC would mete out a stronger punishment than any yet shown to Russia.
The Olympics deserve so much better than the calibre of the people who run it. Beijing is playing host to one of the finest crops of women’s figure skating talent in living memory, but the contest is being ruined by grubby political games. For the IOC, the spirit of fair play is trumped by the power of patronage. The laments by the US Olympic Committee about a loss of integrity mean little, ultimately, against Thomas Bach’s apparent resolve to ingratiate himself with Vladimir Putin.
Any time the IOC confronts an issue of this diplomatic magnitude mid-Games, it sees to it that it becomes somebody else’s problem. Adams reiterated on Monday that it wanted Wada to investigate Valieva’s entourage. Except the IOC controls Wada. It controls Cas, too. This is very much its concern, and one it could take a lead on by doing what it should have done four years ago - kicking out Russia out of the Olympics. Even Dick Pound, a senior IOC executive and the inaugural Wada president, suggests that the Russians’ conduct has become so incorrigible that there is a case to ban them for two to three Games.
But never mind banning an entire nation, Olympic organisers cannot even a ban a figure skater who has tested positive for an endurance-enhancing drug. Their approach is simply to kick the can down the road, until such time as the attention of the world moves on. Intriguingly, the only legal case that the IOC took out was against the Russian Anti-Doping Agency. It was left to Wada and the International Skating Union to launch proceedings in Cas against the Russian Olympic Committee and Valieva herself.
In the meantime, Russian athletes continue to cut a swathe across the snow and ice of Beijing. They already have 18 medals, the second most overall. Another gold is now highly likely to be added by Valieva. But still the IOC says nothing about the perversity of this situation. Just as it refused to countenance Wada’s recommendation that Russia should be banned from the Rio Olympics for their doping regime in Sochi, it is engaged once more in a grim conspiracy of silence.
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