The Russians have and have not been banned from the Olympics. This confidence-uninspiring statement is based on the flawed process that has led to the current situation in Pyeongchang: On one hand, there are many Russian athletes competing; on the other, many Russian athlete bans have been both announced and lifted in recent months by a number of international sports organizations: the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), and the various sport-governing bodies like the International Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation (IBSF).
Whether one supports or opposes Russian participation in Pyeongchang, it is easy to see that we need a better process for adjudicating doping violations—one of the biggest problems in Olympic sport. Indeed, to call what happened a “process” is an overstatement. Rather, it is an object lesson in how not to ban athletes.
It started with a November 2015 report by WADA’s Independent Commission (IC), which concluded that Russia had engaged in state-sponsored doping at Sochi and elsewhere. The report stated that the director of the WADA-accredited Moscow anti-doping laboratory, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, was at the center of this scheme, destroying 1,417 urine samples, extorting money from Russian athletes, and being evasive when interviewed by WADA. On the crucial issue of the destroyed urine samples, the report was not subtle: “The IC finds that Director Rodchenkov’s statements regarding the destruction of the samples are not credible”—that is, the reasons he gave to the IC investigators for why he had destroyed the samples did not comport with his previously acknowledged understanding that the IC had instructed him to not destroy the samples. It further stated that “Rodchenkov remained obstructive throughout the IC investigation.”
Not much attention was paid to this report until 2016, when Rodchenkov was brought out of Russia with the help of a documentary filmmaker, who made an Academy Award–nominated film about Russian sports doping—with Rodchenkov in a starring role—called Icarus. Rodchenkov had turned informant. But here’s the problem with informants: Their version of events tends to be shaped by their audiences. With Rodchenkov the laboratory director now discredited throughout his profession and in his own country, would Rodchenkov the whistle-blower be met with greater lenience?
The filmmaker made Rodchenkov available to The New York Times, which published a lengthy front-page article on Russian state-sponsored doping in May 2016. The article did acknowledge that Rodchenkov’s account “could not be independently verified,” but stated that “it was consistent with the broad findings of a report published last year by the World Anti-Doping Agency.” Therefore, although the Times knew of the earlier WADA report, the Times chose not to mention that report’s assessment of Rodchenkov’s behavior toward the investigators.
The Times article was published less than 90 days before the Rio Olympics, and the IOC (which characterized Rodchenkov’s account as “very detailed and very worrying”) subsequently commissioned a second WADA report to be completed before the games. That report, which was produced in 57 days, centered on Rodchenkov—granting him enhanced credibility—and purported to cover, without Russian cooperation, scores of athletes over multiple years. Based on that report, the IOC banned numerous Russian athletes from competing in Rio, even though there was no or insufficient individual evidence of their guilt.