Athletic ban on Russia falls short



December 12, 2019 - 9:50 AM

Russian athletes participate during the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The World Anti-Doping Agency unanimously agreed to ban Russia from major international sporting competitions for four years.

International anti-doping regulators say they’ve had it with Russian cheating and have banned the country from international competition for four years. That includes the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. What does that ban really mean?

Well, imagine the Russian volleyball team wins gold. The team takes the podium. But because of the ban, the athletes aren’t wearing Russian uniforms. Instead, they don whatever drab, understated garb signifies being neutrals from nowhere in particular. No Russian flag goes up the flagpole, no Russian anthem fills the arena.

Back in Moscow, what do you think Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reaction would be? A seething scowl? A fist slam onto his desk? Our guess is a wide, beaming smile and a celebratory swig of the best vodka rubles can buy.

Russians still will have won gold, and for a country bent on a scam-at-any-cost approach to winning, bringing home the gold is all that matters.

In issuing its verdict Monday, the World Anti-Doping Agency said that, even after Russia was exposed as a systematic cheater at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 and a long list of other international competitions, Russian officials persisted in their chicanery. They did so most recently by manipulating a database containing test results for Russian athletes.

The agency could have slapped an outright ban on Russia that barred every Russian athlete from Tokyo, Beijing, the World Cup and all other international competitions for four years. Instead, WADA flinched.

Beckie Scott, a Canadian cross-country skier who had her bronze medal swapped for Olympic gold after two Russian skiers were disqualified for doping, told The New York Times many athletes see WADA’s punishment of Russia as “largely superficial. … WADA had the authority and power to impose a much stronger and serious sanction, and they chose not to.”

Athletes around the world who rely only on grit, passion and commitment to strive for Olympic glory have every right to feel let down. So does every kid from Northbrook to Namibia who nurtures dreams of a podium moment. With stronger action against Russia, the international sports community could have sent a message to those kids that cheating is, and will always be, a one-way road to disgrace.

The halfway ban issued by WADA reinforces the cynicism that much of the world increasingly feels about the Olympics. What used to be a celebration of “Faster, Higher, Stronger” has been stained by the taint of greed, power and pharmacology. In the lead-up to the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, there was hope that banning the Russian flag and anthem would be the cudgel that scared Russia straight. Clearly that measure wasn’t enough. Why would international sports officials think it would be enough now?

Only one course of action would get the Kremlin to sit up and take notice — an outright ban on Russian athletes competing. The message to governments and athletes everywhere would be simple and blunt: You cheat, you don’t compete. Anything less gives Russia the victory lap it bought with steroids and artifice.