Appeasement Policies Will Not Fix Doping

Four years ago, in something out of an Ian Fleming novel, the Russian government engaged in a conspiracy to successfully facilitate Olympic athletes doping and cover evidence that makes what Lance Armstrong did at the Tour de France look like petty crime in comparison. The world was appalled when the operation was uncovered. Stories of KGB agents breaking into the Sochi Doping Control Center — the building where doping tests occur — to swap urine samples, whistleblowers seeking asylum, and a systematic doping program that involved the highest levels of the Russian government flooded the airwaves.

The International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency quickly convened special commissions to investigate the accusations. They found a nesting doll of cover-ups in the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, an organization that had reportedly benefited 1,000 Russian athletes from 2011 to 2015 across almost every Olympic sport. The final report found that RUSADA was in non-compliance with the World Anti-Doping Code. 111 athletes were removed from the 2016 Russian team competing in Rio.

These allegations led President Thomas Bach of the IOC to ban Russia outright from the Pyeongchang Games. However, the IOC decided to allow 168 athletes to compete in Korea, competing under the flag of “Olympic Athletes from Russia” rather than the traditional Russian flag. This seemed to be a win for Putin, who is, after all, used to having Russians compete under different flags — such as when the Russian troops in Ukraine wore “black-ops” uniforms with no marks identifying their nationality. Bach made certain that the 168 athletes would be thoroughly vetted so that the dirty results of Sochi wouldn’t be repeated in Pyeongchang. Certainly, it seemed, Russia had learned their lesson.

We all could have guessed what happened next.

Less than a week into the Pyeongchang games, Alexander Krushelnitsky, a member of the OAR curling team, was found to have a banned substance, meldonium, in his system. A couple of days later, Nadezhda Sergeeva — who was featured in a promotional video issued by the Russian Olympic Committee and IOC during the games, in which she wore a t-shirt that read, “I don’t do doping” — returned a positive test for trimetazidine after the women’s bobsledding competition. These cases don’t even include the suspicious circumstances that surround OAR cross country skier, Denis Spitsov, who earned three medals at the games, after making his international debut just two months ago. Although Spitsov passed the IOC’s so-called rigorous vetting process, his coach, Yuri Borodavko, was banned from the sport for two years after administering performance-enhancing drugs to his athletes. Borodavko told the Associated Press in Pyeongchang that he was given “complete carte blanche” after serving his ban.

Athletes like Sergeeva and Krushelnitsky are perfect examples of the IOC’s approach to the Russian fiasco at large. Step 1: Claim you’re clean. 2: Get caught. 3: Apologize. 4: Repeat the same actions.

Despite the continuous cycle of Russian doping, Bach claimed after the closing ceremonies that “there is no indication whatsoever of systemic or systematic doping here, or of any involvement of the OAR leadership or the Russian Olympic Committee.” He later went on to say, “In society, we have had laws against theft or robbery for thousands of years. And there is still theft or robbery. This is unfortunate, but we cannot ignore human reality.”

But instead of punishing Russia for repeated offenses, like we do with criminals, Bach has insisted that the best policy for disciplining systematic Russian doping is to not have a policy. Instead, Bach is expected to reinstate the Russian Olympic Committee in the IOC in coming days as a reward for their “good behavior.” In fact, it was reported that he was even willing to let the OAR delegation walk into the closing ceremonies Sunday waving the Russian flag, until wiser heads prevailed in the IOC Executive Cabinet.

Instead of following the footsteps of the International Association of Athletic Foundations and instituting a blanket ban, or listening to ex-WADA President Dick Pound when he said you couldn’t “wish away” the Russian fiasco, Bach has simply ignored the fact that, in Russia, doping is considered normal.

Bach’s policy of appeasement isn’t going to fix the Russian doping culture. All it does is frustrate clean athletes, and show the Russians that you can cheat, as long as you don’t cheat too much. As for Krushelnitsky and Sergeeva, they’ll most likely receive a year-long suspension, or at most a two-year ban after their cases are heard by anti-doping courts, which will be just in time for them to begin to compete in the qualification period for the 2022 Beijing Games. Hopefully, by Beijing, the IOC will have broken the iron curtain of doping, Russia will have taken responsibility for systemic doping, and we’ll have faith that the results of events with Russian athletes haven’t been tainted.

We can only guess what will happen next.