The International Olympic Committee’s decision on Russia’s acknowledged use of a widespread steroid distribution system, was the “tastes like chicken” of justice: unsatisfying for all parties involved. Russia will still be a part of the Olympics; its flags will be represented. But every athlete from Russia will now be seen as tainted—guilty until proven innocent—and have to apply to their individual sports’ federation in order to be approved for competition. IOC President Thomas Bach won the understatement of the year award when he said, “This may not please everybody on either side.”
For those who see Russia as being scapegoated by an unfair process of secret evidence and absence of an appeals procedure, the decision has affixed a permanent scarlet “S” to Russian athletes for a generation. Every victory will now be tainted by, as Bach put it, a “shocking new dimension in doping” with an “unprecedented level of criminality.”
Already, the Russian Track and Field teams and even their Paralympic teams have been banned. Their minister of sport, Vitaly Mutko, and the entire Russian Ministry of Sports have been barred from setting foot in Rio. The athletes who apply to compete will have to have their decisions adjudicated by August 5, which just about guarantees a slipshod process that will see either the federation issue a blanket approval for all Russian Olympians or mass banning, all with zero due process.
Defenders of Russia’s Olympians, as well as those concerned about principles of due process, will say that this has collectivized the steroid stigma and put the burden of proof on individual athletes. Yet while the Bach decision has collectivized the stigma, it hasn’t collectivized guilt. And this distinction has enraged a motley crew of partners. The anti-steroid amateur purists believe that Thomas Bach—a former Olympian who had made uprooting performance enhancing drugs central to his legacy—is all bark and no bite. They think flying the Russian flag is an unspeakable disgrace.
And liberals have fanned the flames of a metastasizing story that Putin, through Wikileaks, is attempting to influence the 2016 elections on behalf of Donald Trump. They see this as one victory against a Russian strongman that nobody—not the Republican Party or the IOC—has the courage to confront. As one official said to me, “When it comes to Putin, everyone blinks. And Bach took it to the edge of enraging Putin and, just like everyone else, he blinked.”
The anti-doping officials are particularly upset that the primary Russian whistle-blower, middle-distance runner Yuliya Stepanova, has been refused a place at the games. Stepanova, who has been branded a “traitor” by the Russian government, applied to compete under no flag. This was refused and she was barred for having previously failed a drug test, a spurious reason given that athletes are routinely cleared if they have already served their penalties. It is widely perceived that Stepanova was denied a place to appease Russia—and it vexes Stepanova’s defenders that the IOC would be both punishing and appeasing Russia simultaneously.
On all sides we can find outrage, so to cut through the nonsense I contacted David W. Larkin, international sport and anti-corruption attorney and co-director of the reform group Change FIFA. He said, “The IOC is saying, ‘Just trust us,’ which, given international sports’ track record, is hard to do. The public is offered no assurance as to the quality of the investigation that was conducted and those investigated are offered no due-process guarantees. All of it is very alarming and is yet more evidence of what I’ve been saying for years—the sport justice system is broken…. What still amazes and alarms me as a lawyer is that, when crisis strikes sport, the governance and justice systems are so unsophisticated and unworthy of public trust that we are always left at the subjective mercy and good graces of those in charge. This is wholly unacceptable and has got to change.”
Larkin is correct. The root problem is not the Russian Sports Ministry or the World Anti-Doping Agency, even though both of those institutions are rotten. The root problem is a system of adjudication that no one trusts and leaves everyone in a state of dissatisfaction.
I personally am glad that the IOC resisted Western political pressure and did not punish athletes who very well may be clean. Collectivizing guilt is horrible when exercised by the NCAA to punish teenage basketball players, and it’s immoral when practiced by the IOC. Yet, athletically, Russian athletes are now tainted for a generation and it is difficult to see how Thomas Bach has any plan to ensure PED-free sports going forward. The IOC is broken, and there will never be sweet fruit that can be picked from such a poison tree.