Column: The IOC Is Punishing The InnocentJune 30, 2016
The IAAF, the world governing body for track and field events, recently banned Russia’s track and field athletes from participating in this summer’s Olympic Games in Brazil. The IAAF ban was actually an extension of a suspension imposed last fall after a comprehensive report by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) detailed Russia’s “deeply rooted culture of cheating (i.e., doping).” The IOC upheld the IAAF ban.
Given the overwhelming evidence of state-sponsored doping by Russian athletes, reminiscent of East Germany’s total disregard of the rules in the ‘70’s, it’s understandable that global sport governing bodies felt the need to take significant action. But what they did – a total ban of Russian track and field athletes – is an example of “collective punishment” which indiscriminately affects the innocent as well as the guilty. Such action is the antithesis of good leadership.
In defending the ban, IAAF doping expert Rune Andersen said, “This is about a Russian system that has failed…and there need to be consequences.” Dick Pound, former WADA president as well as a former IOC vice-president, who led the investigation of Russia’s doping activities, echoed those comments. In an interview with USA Today Pound said, “If your country is this complicit in a comprehensive and extensive doping program, then the country has to pay the price. And there may be some collateral damage (emphasis added).” You think? Start with Russian pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, a two-time Olympic gold medal winner and current world record holder in the event who is now barred from the Games. Ditto for her fellow countrywoman, high jumper Anna Vladimirovna Chicherova, the gold medal winner in the last two Olympics. Neither has ever tested positive for a banned substance.
On the issue of consequences, Andersen and Pound would encounter little debate. But what are the “appropriate” consequences? Shouldn’t the gravity of Russia’s crimes be balanced against the protection of innocent athletes who have spent their lifetime training for Olympic glory? Both organizations took the easy way out – a blanket ban, perhaps to “show the Russians” that they cannot flaunt the rules with impunity. But their actions don’t pass the tests of creativity, courage, competency, common sense or crisis.
The IOC had the opportunity to right a wrong when they considered whether to uphold or overturn the IAAF’s ban. Instead of exercising leadership, they opted to concur, and suggested they might go further and extend the ban to include Russia’s entire delegation, with one caveat: Russian athletes who could “prove” they are clean “might” be allowed to compete in Rio. Details on how to “prove” innocence weren’t immediately forthcoming, but an organization as powerful and wealthy as the IOC could easily test individual athletes in approved labs. They could also test stored samples from prior Olympics and/or other international competitions. The IOC could then allow innocent Russian athletes to compete as “neutral athletes,” similar to what has been done for athletes in past Olympics, in lieu of competing under their country’s flag.
If they wanted to send a message to Russia and other doping violators, the IOC could strip Russia of all oversight for drug testing its own athletes and bar any official who was complicit in the doping scandal from any future role in their Olympic Committee or the IOC. In other words, punish the guilty, not the innocent.
The IOC’s position is more than a little ironic, given that the organization is widely acknowledged to be the most corrupt sports body in the universe not named FIFA. Bribes, vote-buying and scandalous behavior have been endemic throughout its history, particularly in reference to awarding sites for the Olympic Games.
Innocents should never be cavalierly dismissed as “collateral damage.” Nor should they be punished for the misdeeds of their predecessors or superiors. If the IOC hierarchy truly embraced that view, they would all resign.