Potemkin sanctioning

I’m not an Olympic athlete. To be honest, although I’ve tried quite a few different sports in the past, I didn’t particularly excel in any of them. But I tend to be a good observer. And my friends tell me that I have a decent level of empathy, both regarding their feelings and those of total strangers.  I have been to two Olympic Games (so far). I’ve spoken to athletes, their coaches, their parents. I have heard and at the same time I have seen in their faces what it meant for them to be there, to be a part of it, what it took for them to fulfil their dream. I didn’t experience it myself, but I could feel at least a glimpse of their joy, their enthusiasm, their relief after years of sacrifice.

That is why I am extremely hesitant when it comes to denying any of them a chance to qualify for and compete in the Games. Those who break the rules, commit Doping violations, cheat, undermine the values of sport, deserve to face punishment, including a significant ban in accordance with the relevant rules and regulations. Those who don’t cheat, who play by the rules, should, upon qualification, be granted the chance to compete for Olympic glory. They should not have to suffer because of the acts of ‘a few others’.

But where does it end? What if the scale of the cheating is so enormous that sanctioning a few individuals will not be sufficient to ensure, or better, to regain credibility? What if a stronger deterrent is needed? How to respond when there are not ‘a few others’ who are guilty of some ‘Anti-Doping rule violations’ but an entire system governing all sports in an entire country? What if those responsible are to be found on all levels, from individual athletes, coaches, doctors to sports organizers, politicians, government officials, ministers and probably even the head of state?

Well, here we are. Welcome to the Olympic reality of the 21st century!

Now, who is responsible for this largest attack on the substance, on every basic ideal, of the Olympic Movement? All of them. All those athletes, coaches, doctors, officials, who were at that time part of the system. It is therefore necessary, and indeed long overdue, to suspend the Russian Olympic Committee from any rights and privileges it enjoys within the Olympic Movement. This is not the first time an NOC has been suspended, in fact right now there is another active suspension: Kuwait (for government interference). In the past countries have been barred from sending their athletes to the Olympics for a variety of reasons, Germany for example after each of the two world wars, South Africa for their Apartheid policy, Yugoslavia during the wars of the early 1990s. But never before has a country been excluded due to widespread Doping. You can criticise the IOC for taking too long to come to this decision. But the fact that they finally took this step is significant, it is huge, it is absolutely right.

However, it cannot be proven that the same state-run (or -sponsored or -supported, whatever…) Doping system in Russia is still working today. I’m not saying that no Russian is using any kind of forbidden substances today, just not controlled and protected by the structures of the previously active Doping scheme. And that means today’s athletes, unless they are implicated in the database obtained by WADA recently, are not necessarily personally guilty of any wrongdoing.

That’s why I support the IOC’s decision to allow individual athletes from Russia to participate as neutrals under the Olympic flag in Pyeongchang. I support the decision, but, and this is important, not necessarily the currently evolving implementation. There has to be an effective mechanism including strict criteria to choose those eligible to compete in the Games, and I’m afraid there isn’t one. Nobody with a previous Doping sanction should be allowed, nobody implicated in the database, nobody who in any other way can be seen as a beneficiary of the Doping system. Right now, I sense a discrepancy between the IOC Executive Board decision and WADA’s initial reaction. The criterion ‘not being implicated in the database’, which is an important one, can only be found in the latter. A possible loophole? Who knows? It wouldn’t be a first for the IOC…

Obviously, with or without these reservations, the points of view on this decision differ. While it can be considered easily as the strongest stance the IOC has ever, in its 123 year history, taken on the issue of Doping, some, for various reasons, might put the emphasis on some other aspects, including aspects that aren’t even existing… Josef Ferstl, president of the International Luge Federation (FIL) was fast to express his ‘relief’ that Russian Luge athletes have been ‘cleared’ (which they haven’t been…) by the IOC-Executive Board to compete in Pyeongchang, while not addressing the Russian NOCs suspension with a single word. While sliding some distance away from the truth, the statement also shows a widespread reluctance among some IFs to recognize the sheer scale of the entire affair and the enormous damage and indeed mortal danger for the Olympic Movement (the mighty FIS (Skiing) was next, when it issued a ‘formal warning’ against Russia without any further sanctions or perhaps a removal of hosting rights…, while IBSF’s (Bobsleigh/Skeleton) response can only be called chaotic…).

On the other hand some German media published articles with headlines like ‘Russia avoids Olympic ban’, which is not entirely true either. In fact, German media outlets seem to be increasingly fed up with this entire affair and the Doping issue in general. I can’t really blame them for that. But if this results in a reluctance to report and evaluate current developments from an objective perspective, instead copy-pasting the ever same opinion pieces about how rotten world sport has become, how ‘mafia-like’ the structures of IOC and FIFA are, how ‘we’, whoever that may be, have known it all along, and then later on the same page, laugh at the seemingly easy tasks the national soccer team is going to face in the upcoming FIFA World Cup in Russia(!), bemoan the poor performances of German clubs in the over-commercialized UEFA competitions and speculate about potential high-profile transfers, for just a few million Euros, during the Bundesliga’s winter break, then I cannot call that good journalism. One of the notable exemptions has to be of course ARD’s Hajo Seppelt and his team, whose anger I understand and share, whose bravey, perseverance and extensive knowledge I admire, whose desperation I can only imagine.

However different the opinions on Russia’s suspension may be, it has to be made absolutely clear that this cannot, must not be the end of the story. The investigations have to continue. There are still far too many unanswered questions. Those responsible, individuals, organizations, IFs, NOCs, governments, must be held accountable, and I do not only mean those who brought the Olympics into this mess but also those who will be entrusted with the task of getting them back on track, including those who will have to set organized sports in Russia on an entirely new basis. But who should that be? Can you name a single Russian sports official who can be trusted to have a clean slate? What about the other IOC members from Russia? What about Shamil Tarpishchev and Yelena Isinbayeva? What about honorary members Vitaly Smirnov and Alexander Popov? What about presidents or board members of IFs, like Alisher Usmanov (FIE (Fencing)), Alexander Lakernik (ISU (Skating)), Andrey Bokarev (FIS), Vladislav Tretiak (IIHF (Ice Hockey); and yes, I know that’s the goalkeeper of the century…)? If this has been a conspiracy encompassing Russia’s sports system in its entirety, shouldn’t they, as not so unimportant members of this system, also be investigated? I’m just asking…

Speaking of Russian sports officials, judging from the IOC decision alone, Vitaly Mutko initially appeared to be the highest-profiled pawn sacrifice in this entire scandal. A lifetime Olympic ban for the former Minister of Sport, current president of the Russian Football Association and head organizer of the FIFA World Cup, could send a strong message. Could… If the recipient of such a message was at all capable of recognizing its scope and the senders were united in fulfilling the commitment such a message implies. Neither happened. Mutko did step down, as head of the Russian FA and eventually even as World Cup organizer, albeit only temporarily and of course without admitting any degree of guilt. FIFA on the other hand saw absolutely no necessity to take action against any Russian official and instead issued a formal warning against Spain for alleged governmental interference, amidst attempts by the Spanish government to cope with a corruption scandal in their own FA. Oh, and do you remember what happened to Vitaly Mutko after he had to step down as Minister of Sport because of growing international pressure during the emerging Doping scandal? Vladimir Putin himself appointed him Deputy Prime Minister of Russia. No words…

Once again, to make this absolutely clear: I support the IOC’s decision. All of it. But I have serious doubts concerning its implementation and I am deeply worried by a tendency in significant parts of the Olympic Movement to interpret this decision as a line drawn and as an excuse for further inaction. This, not the decision itself, can be seen as a massive deception of the general public and the Olympic Family. This is where the IOC leadership is once again beginning to build a ‘Potemkin village’ around the rotten core of the scandal. Maybe another problem with any IOC decision during the presidency of Thomas Bach is that the number of new questionable points brought up with it tend to exceed the number of answers found for current problems. To begin the new year with such a pessimistic outlook hurts me more than you can imagine, but under the current presidency, I cannot possibly envision any significant change coming from within the IOC in the foreseeable future. Still the disease the Movement is currently suffering from is life threatening. Change has to come. And it has to come now. Not after Bach’s tenure, not after the completion of yet another commission, not during some future Olympic Congress, now! Where should it come from? I have no definite answer for this. But maybe the growing number of athletes willing and ready to take a stand, to voice their legitimate opinions and concerns, to fight not only against Doping but also against injustice, inequality, ignorance, abuse, against racism, corruption and criminal structures in several countries and organizations, is an indication, a sign of hope. Those athletes do not fight for themselves, for they are facing a mammoth task, and the results, the benefits of their struggles will only be felt long after the end of their active careers, which makes every effort even more commendable and more honest. People like Robert Harting, Anna Schaffelhuber, Yuliya Stepanova, Gabriela Koukalova, Martin Fourcade, Anna Muzychuk, Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney, Gabby Douglas, the Norwegian and US Women’s Soccer teams, IOC members Adam Pengilly and Angela Ruggiero, and many others have my full support.

They do deserve yours.


One thought on “Potemkin sanctioning

  1. Good post on a difficult subject. In my sport ( equestrian) it is the horses who are tested primarily and most suspensions of athletes are the horses. I agree with you about the need for continued investigation.


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