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They worked in dim light in the small hours of the morning, lab techs and intelligence operatives, passing bottles back and forth through a tiny hole in the wall of a Sochi drug testing lab. They were the leading edge of a nationwide, years-in-the-making conspiracy to elude doping tests and establish Russian dominance in the Olympics. They were part of the greatest doping fraud perpetuated on the world athletic stage in a generation, robbing other athletes and other nations of glory, one bottle of tainted urine at a time.
But they got caught, and now, Russia is paying the harshest price in the history of the Olympic Games.
Like a hockey player flicking a last-second wrist shot into a net an entire rink away, the International Olympic Committee has, at long last, made the right decision with no time left to spare, banning Russia from the 2018 Winter Olympics just two months before the Opening Ceremony in PyeongChang, South Korea. It’s a monumental decree that carries an extra knife-twist of a jab at Russia’s beloved national identity. It was the correct decision, the only decision, and the fact that there was any question at all that it would happen only shows how far from grace the IOC had fallen prior to Tuesday.
The IOC has spent the last few decades under the spell of money and power, whether from sponsors, broadcast partners or host nations, and never was that more apparent than in 2014. Russia spent tens of billions to transform a tiny coastal town into a podium to trumpet Russia’s bid at worldwide supremacy, and the IOC happily applauded the effort.
Sure, many of the hotel rooms were never fixed, and many of the stray dogs that once roamed the streets met uncertain fates, and the entire enterprise descended into a desolate ghost town within weeks of the Closing Ceremony. Russian leadership was delighted that the nation needed a truck to haul its medals, and the IOC was delighted that, once again, someone had set a new price point for Olympic glory.
It wasn’t until months later that the world learned the truth: the entire enterprise was a fraud. Russia had gamed the system, engineering a complex system to evade doping detection and deliver Russia all the gold, silver and bronze it could handle. Russia won 13 gold medals and 33 overall medals, the most of any nation in the Games. The doorknobs and shower fixtures in Sochi may have been shoddily constructed, but the doping scheme was not.
In November 2015, the World Anti-Doping Agency outlined the existence of the conspiracy, one that comprised — in the words of the IOC — “a deeply rooted culture of doping and cheating involving doctors, coaches and laboratory personnel, as well as the financial exploitation of some of the athletes who had to pay in order to access the doping ‘programmes’ and/or to ‘cover’ the positive results allowing them to continue to participate in international competitions.” Not just cheating the system, but twisting the arms of Russian athletes already swept up in it.
A few months later, a New York Times report blew the whole scheme apart:
“In a dark-of-night operation, Russian antidoping experts and members of the intelligence services surreptitiously replaced urine samples tainted by performance-enhancing drugs with clean urine collected months earlier, somehow breaking into the supposedly tamper-proof bottles that are the standard at international competitions … For hours each night, they worked in a shadow laboratory lit by a single lamp, passing bottles of urine through a hand-size hole in the wall, to be ready for testing the next day.”
That’s relentless. That’s unrepentant. That deserves the harshest punishment in Olympic history, and the only surprise is that the IOC actually delivered it.
The IOC was already looking at a situation where only authoritarian regimes with unfettered access to national treasuries could afford to host Olympics; no nation with even a hint of fiscal prudence would attempt to match Vladimir Putin’s pave-the-streets-with-gold extravagance. And now, that same superpower, one of the titans of the Games for the last half-century, gets caught rigging the Games in a scheme with literal worldwide implications? The IOC had no choice but to drop a sledgehammer, and thankfully for whatever tattered shards remain of the Olympic ideal, it did so on Tuesday.
You always feel a bit bad for the innocent athletes — if indeed there are any, a caveat we have to offer — caught up in international Olympic scandals. They’ve trained their entire lives for this moment, their window of competition is often only open for a single Games, but they can lose it all due to decisions beyond their control, whether it’s the United States boycotting in 1980 or Russia getting bounced in 2017.
Sensing this, and aware of the sympathy that these hypothetical banned athletes would get, the IOC offered a rare escape route that simultaneously benefits innocent athletes while striking at the very heart of Russian pride. Athletes who can survive a strenuous check of their bona fides — an investigation that’s likely to be as stringent as anything the IOC’s ever conducted — will get the chance to compete under the blanket designation of OAR, Olympic Athletes of Russia. Any medals they win won’t count to Russia’s total; any podium ceremonies they attend won’t feature the Russian flag or the Russian anthem. To a president and a nation consumed with the concept of national pride, it’s a deliberate, piercing humiliation.
But, given that possibility, will Putin even let Russian athletes participate? It’s one of many questions still remaining. Russia, which has already been stripped of 11 medals its athletes won in Sochi, isn’t likely to meekly accept these sanctions and pledge to clean up its act for Tokyo 2020. No, an appeal is likely, and if that fails, a coordinated campaign to paint the IOC as a puppet of Western interests and the doping as the actions of a few rogue actors. This will be a long, bureaucratic, legalistic slog for Russia, but unlike in Sochi, Russia won’t be playing from a position of strength.
The IOC took the first step in the correct direction. The next one ought to be easier.