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Russia's doping plot: Symptom of a deeper Olympic malaise?

values & ideals

While the extent of Russia's doping efforts was unique, it may indicate a greater issue for the Games than cheating athletes. Rather, it may show a loss of the Olympic ideals themselves – and a need to reset the Olympic project accordingly.

A Russian skating fan holds the country's national flag over the Olympic rings before the start of the men's 10,000-meter speedskating race at Adler Arena Skating Center during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
David J. Phillip/AP/File
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Russia has been given the ultimate Olympic red card, forced to sit out the 2018 Winter Games. The humiliating punishment comes just four years after their athletes won more medals than any other country in Sochi – a feat aided by systematic Russian doping and manipulation of drug-testing samples.

The fact that the lumbering International Olympic Committee finally decided to take action has been hailed in the West as a gutsy if overdue move, and a coming-of-age moment for the global anti-doping movement.

Russians, however, see it as part of the West’s longstanding war on their culture, history, and sport. “They are always trying to put us down in everything,” wrote Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova in a Facebook post, adding it to a long list of grievances including “world war, the collapse of the Soviet Union and sanctions.”  

The question now is: How does the Olympic movement heal this rift with one of its superstars and restore integrity to sport? Scholars say the key lies in returning to its foundational ethical principles, including “mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity, and fair play.” Though the use of performance-enhancing drugs appears to remain widespread and a threat to fair play, that may be more a symptom of the broader degradation of Olympic ideals rather than the chief plague.

“The Olympic Games are supposed to be a celebration of Olympism, like Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Christ. And so clearly Christmas has lost its way in the promotion of the birth of Christ – it’s become a corporate enterprise now. And clearly the Olympic Games have lost their way. They, too, have become a corporate enterprise,” says Ian Culpan, professor of physical education and Olympism education at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. “[Sport] has lost its educative and social value at the elite level.”

Resolving Russia

Pierre de Coubertin, the founding father of the modern Olympics, envisioned them not so much as a display case for the world’s greatest athletic achievement but an avenue for developing mankind’s character.

“The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part; the important thing in Life is not triumph, but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well,” he said. “To spread these principles is to build up a strong and more valiant and, above all, more scrupulous and more generous humanity.”

But somewhere along the way, the Olympics became a stage for demonstrating national pride and prestige.

As host of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia spent a record $51 billion and won more medals than the Russian or Soviet teams had ever won at a Winter Games. But they did so through a years-long doping program and a highly sophisticated cover-up operation, going so far as to pass athletes’ tainted urine samples through a secret hole in the wall of the Olympic drug-testing lab, and replace them with previously collected clean samples.   

“This was an unprecedented attack on the integrity of the Olympic Games and sport,” said IOC President Thomas Bach on Tuesday, announcing the suspension of the Russian Olympic Committee and top-level sports officials after a 17-month investigation, as well as a mechanism through which individual Russian athletes could still be cleared to compete. He expressed hope that those athletes could “set about building a bridge for the future [rather] than erecting a new wall between Russia and the Olympic movement.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin (r.) stands to declare the 2014 Winter Olympics open during the opening ceremony on Feb. 7, 2014, in Sochi, Russia.
David Goldman/AP
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In some ways, the exposing of the Russian doping scandal has been a distraction to the more persistent challenges in anti-doping, says Roger Pielke Jr., director of the Sports Governance Center within the Department of Athletics at the University of Colorado and author of “The Edge: The War Against Cheating and Corruption in the Cutthroat World of Elite Sports.”

As many as 30 to 50 percent of all elite athletes may have broken the rules, according to reports, far more than the 1 or 2 percent who have been sanctioned, he points out.

But the Russia scandal has made clear that it’s not only athletes who need to be held accountable, but also organizations that enforce the World Anti-Doping Code. Last month, the World Anti-Doping Agency introduced guidelines for such organizations, giving a clearer playbook for dealing with any such future violations.

“They’ve filled this governance gap,” says Professor Pielke. “Now the next question is – now that you have them, are you going to use them?”

A bigger problem?

Some have cast the Russian doping scandal in Soviet-era terms – especially since the FSB, Russia’s state security service formerly known as the KGB, was reportedly involved in the cover-up.

“It all gets mushed into this series of cold-war scripts,” says Robert Edelman, professor of Russian history and the history of sport at the University of California, San Diego. “I would argue that the Russia today is much different than the Russia of the communist period.”

The world is also different – and maybe that means the Olympic movement should change, he says.

“In a globalized age, one can imagine the nation-state being removed from the Olympics,” he says, suggesting other sports organizations or even universities could compete – not unlike the early days of the Games, when athletes represented their sporting clubs. “It’d still be the best against the best, but you wouldn’t have the jingoism and chauvinism that you sometimes have.”

At a time of crisis like this, Professor Culpan in New Zealand says it’s important to go back to the founding charter of the Olympic movement. That document reveals clearly a mission to build a peaceful and better world, not just by showcasing the world’s fittest athletes every two years, but by encouraging a way of life that celebrates individual striving and collective progress.

“I would say that the philosophy of Olympism is the IOC’s best kept secret,” Culpan says. “And the IOC don’t realize they’ve got this wonderful opportunity to really influence how the world can live their life.”

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