Let’s get this straight at the outset.
The International Olympic Committee’s unprecedented Tuesday decision on Russian participation at the 2018 Winter Olympics is, as yet, no big deal in any way eventual followers of the upcoming Games will find significant.
The IOC did not ban Russian athletes for the country’s involvement in systemic doping. It banned a symbol, depriving Russia of the chance to show its flag or have its medalists honored with their national anthem or wear the country’s name on their uniforms next February. The decision will allow many Russian athletes to compete, and they undoubtedly will win medals of all colors, and, despite all the feel-good mantras about participating in the Olympics, results are what count.
Yes, it’s the first time such an action has been taken against an entire country because of doping.
But the IOC already has made its most important decisions regarding Russian Winter Olympic athletes by banning and taking medals from many involved in manipulation of tests at the Sochi Olympics. If all these athletes lose their medals after appeals are exhausted, it will knock down Russia’s official medal count for the 2014 Olympics from 33 to 22.
But 22 of the 25 athletes the IOC has disqualified from the Sochi Games - including nine medalists - Wednesday filed appeals against that sanction and the accompanying lifetime ban with the Court or Arbitration for Sport.
What happened Tuesday could have become a very big deal if Russian President Vladimir Putin had become so angry over the slap in his nationalist face he would have the country boycott Pyeongchang, but Russian media reported Wednesday Putin will not stop Russian athletes from competing as neutrals.
According to the English version of the Russian website, rt.com, Putin described the situation as a “humiliating compromise.” Although it would not have been surprising for the IOC’s leadership to have sounded out Putin on his reaction to a potential decision of this nature, IOC President Thomas Bach insisted he had not spoken with Putin about anything regarding the decision. And the decision could take on added significance with rulings on which Russian athletes are clean and can compete as neutrals, to be designated as “Olympic Athlete from Russia (OAR).” That sounds like a rowing team, full of oarsmen and oarswomen. whose successes will be saluted by the Olympic flag and Olympic Anthem.
So far, it amounts to a "hear-no, see-no" Russian evil kind of ban.
The OAR identification removes any pretense of neutrality, of course, since it includes the word, “Russia.” Journalists still will tally medals won by Russian athletes, presuming the IOC doesn’t make such counting unnecessary by having an “OAR” listing in the official medal tables. And why wouldn’t Russian media celebrate its athletes’ 2018 medals as an “up yours” gesture to the IOC?
The IOC’s attempt at a Solomonic decision that punishes the image of Russia and Russian sport rather than individual athletes creates a number of Monty Pythonesque absurdities and leaves many things to be clarified. Will Russian athletes be punished if they carry the country's flag given to them by spectators in the aftermath of a medal-winning performance? Will spectators be allowed to display the Russian flag?
An IOC spokesperson texted me Wednesday morning to say the OAR athletes "will compete with a uniform bearing the name of `Olympic athlete from Russia (OAR),'" which clearly will identify them as Russians, even if the spokesperson added the final design has not been finalized. A Tass story Wednesday quoted Russian prime minister Arkady Dvorkovich as saying the uniforms will have red, white and blue colors - the colors of the Russian flag.
"We will all know that they will be representing Russia," Dvorkovich said.
And what could be sillier than hearing an announcer intone, “Canada beat OAR 4-1 in the Olympic hockey quarterfinals today.”
Maybe the IOC thinks this version of a playground, “Nyah, nyah” will embarrass the Russians into playing straight(er) in the future. The question is whether the joke will be on Russia or the IOC, for the OAR solution fools no one.
In terms of which Russians might compete in South Korea, here are the two significant parts of the IOC decision:
*”Clean” Russian athletes invited to the Games can participate in both individual and team events.
*The decisions on who can compete will not fall to individual international sports federations, as they did when other evidence of state-managed doping cover-ups imperiled Russian participation in the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics. Only the international track and field federation took serious action then against Russian athletes.
A four-person IOC-empowered panel will be the eligibility arbiter for Pyeongchang. Any athlete “disqualified or declared ineligible for any Anti-Doping rule violation” will be among those not allowed to compete, according to the IOC decision. Undergoing all pre-Games “targeted testing,” with negative results, also will be a factor in each athlete’s case. If the panel is as strict as the IOC claims it will be, especially on athletes in sports like biathlon and cross-country skiing, that could put some real bite into the Tuesday decision.
What does that mean for, say, Russian ice dancer Ekaterina Bobrova, who failed a test for meldonium last winter? She should be able to compete, given that the International Skating Union lifted her suspension after the World Anti-Doping Agency granted amnesty to athletes who had tested positive for the banned substance meldonium before Mar. 1, 2016, if the concentration of the drug in the sample fell below a designated threshold.
Did the IOC take the easier road out of this mess? That seems the case, especially since Bach once again called the Russian malfeasance an "unprecedented attack on the integrity of Olympic Games and sports.”
Hearing that, a strict moralist can only wonder if long-term integrity would have been better served by exercising the nuclear option of banning Russian athletes from Pyeongchang, period. That could be justified in light of top Russian officials’ continued denials of what an IOC inquiry commission called “systemic manipulation of anti-doping rules and the anti-doping system.”
Instead, the IOC executive board chose what Bach labeled “proportional sanctions.” Those include a suspension of the Russian Olympic Committee that could end at the closing ceremony in South Korea. The president of the Russian Olympic Committee is suspended as an IOC member while his NOC is verboten. The Russian minister of sport in place during the Sochi Games, Vitaly Mutko, who now is deputy prime minster of Russia, is banned from any future participation in an Olympic Games.
On one hand, the IOC’s citing a need for individuals’ right to due process (rather than a blanket ban) is something anyone in a democratic country can understand. On the other, the IOC put that notion aside in its 32-year ban of South Africa for its racially exclusionary apartheid system, which was an Olympic ban on South African athletes who supported, opposed or had no opinion on apartheid.
“"The IOC took a strong and principled decision. There were no perfect options, but this decision will clearly make it less likely that this ever happens again,” U.S. Olympic Committee chief executive Scott Blackmun said in a Tuesday statement.
As in all matters like this, integrity came face-to-face with realpolitik, and the IOC long has been renowned for its malleable, situational ethics. A Winter Olympics without Russia would be less attractive to many viewers, and, therefore, to the TV networks and sponsors who pay the IOC’s freight.
Bach insisted there were no such considerations and that allowing clean Russian athletes to participate will show there are clean athletes in Russia. (Did Diogenes ever find that honest man?)
“We think these clean Russian athletes can be about building a bridge to a future of a cleaner sport rather than erecting a new wall between Russia and the Olympic movement,” Bach said.
The trowel now is in Putin’s hands.