It has been, so far, “Anno Horribilus” for the world of sport.
And, we should not be surprised.
There was a time, that athletes were expected to live by a higher standard, not a lower standard. In our current zeitgeist, where the cult of personality makes social media sirens more important than someone who cures Zika virus, we have forgotten what is important.
The IOC is supposed to be the group that protects the culture of the Olympics. When Baron Pierre de Coubertin ressurected the Olympic Games, he knew he was fighting a tough battle. The Olympics had been cancelled since 375 AD, when the Roman emperor Theodosius cancelled the Olympic Games to gain favor with a new religious cult that was gaining strength in Rome at the time.
That new religious cult that Emperor Theodosius was trying to appease?
They were called Christians.
Just another example of how sports and politics have been bedfellows for thousands of years.
Thomas Bach is the current IOC president. His job is to protect the Olympic movement. And the challenges are immense. Every four years, the Summer Olympics are the celebration of sport that is not surpassed by any other sporting event. The Winter Olympics pail in comparison, and everyone wants to be part of the Summer Olympics.
In 1933, the IOC President was Henri de Baillet-Latour. He was Belgian and was elected President after Pierre de Coubertin resigned in 1924, after the very successful 1924 Paris Olympics. The 1924 version was much better in Paris than the 1900 version in the same city. The modern Olympics had struggled in 1900, 1904, 1906, and finally, by 1908, were gaining momentum. After giving the Olympics for 1936 to Germany, there were some misgivings. Adolf Hitler wanted the 1936 Olympics to show the greatness of Nazi Germany. Henri de Baillet-Latour had to threaten moving the 1936 Olympics to have Hitler pull down signage over the treatment of Jews and gays in Berlin during the Olympic visit to Berlin. Berlin in the 1920s had been a wonderfully eccentric, diverse and creative city, prior to the Nazis rise to power. In Berlin in 1936, during the time of the Olympics, the Nazis hid some of their intentions to appeal and appease Olympic leaders. By then, many political prisoners, from Communists to gays, were already in Dachau. Jews were not allowed to own businesses, and were being maltreated, beaten and humiliated on a daily basis. The Nightmare years had begun.
Sport is geo politics. Since the arrival of the Soviet Union in the 1952 Olympics, wins by Soviet Union athletes and by U.S. athletes, leaders of both sides of the cold War, were given even more value as success of the political systems.
East Germany showed the levels of depravity that governments would go to for their athletes to win. Suggestions of drug use came out after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and the reunification of Germany. But many athletes, coaches and media members felt athletes of East Germany were enhanced.
The WADA reports in November 2015 and January 2016 made it quite clear how systematic doping was in Russian athletics. The reports also showed the failures of the IAAF. The IAAF, fighting over constant attacks to their credibility, somehow found the time to ban the Russian Athletic Federation from Rio, but also, and most importantly, give Russia a clear path on how to re enter the family of sporting nations.
The McLaren report, announced last week, showed an even more egregious system in place in Sochi 2014, using changes of urine, alleged FSB (Russian security) involvement, and over a dozen federations signed a letter to the IOC, asking for a complete ban of Russian sports federations from the Rio Olympics.
Russia’s President Putin noted that geo politics was rearing its ugly head in sports. And, for once, I have to agree with Vladimir Putin.
The truth is, sports has always been part of the global political framework. From World Cup, to World Champs, to Olympics, all of us cheer for our country and our countries’ teams and athletes. It is part of the fun, it is part of identifying with a nation state.
Russia is not the only country to cheat in sports. It may have done it better than most and in a more systematic approach, but they are not the only one out there. My belief is the IOC should have taken the opportunity to stand strong and put a line in the sand on doping. A clear message and a clear way for Russia to re enter the global sports world would have been a clear message. The IOC message is opaque at best.
It also may have been the last time they get such a clear opportunity.
In speaking to some of my coaching friends from the country of Russia, I note a conversation held this past summer. A friend noted that some of the coaches in his country had gotten lazy. Russian athletics has been known for fine technical approaches and finding athletes the events with which they could truly excel. Doping was an easy route.
It is not just in Russia, as much of our modern society is about fast responses and easy ways of getting things done.
The truth is, in our sport, it takes 12-15 years to get to the level of elite athletes who compete in a World Championships or Olympics. The difference at that level of competition is hundredths of seconds, or centimeters.
What does doping do? Doping allows athletes to recover faster. An extra day of working out each week gives 52 days of extra training to an athlete. That is seven plus weeks of additional training. That is a simplistic approach, but it also lets you see that any edge can make the difference of winning, losing, or placing in the gold, silver or bronze positions.
Replacing doped urine with clean urine is a well thought out response to doping procedures. Disposing of urine samples so that testing can not be done shows forethought. These are the kind of situations the McLaren report cited. Nothing new, but strangely impressive in the level of planning, forethought and success.
The IOC cited that they could not do a complete ban because there were obviously clean Russian athletes. Some IOC contacts note that Russia is following some of the procedures that global sport has demanded, so should they not be recognized? I will leave that conundrum up to you, dear readers.
Many of the experts I have spoken with tell me that athletes who doped now will gain benefits for the next several years.
Russians are proud of their country, like other countries. As someone who studied Russian history, I am appalled how little most Americans know about Russia. In 1963, just before his assasination, President Kennedy spoke at American University about the huge part that the old Soviet Union played in World War 2. Russians know that as the Great Patriotic War. The chip on the proverbial shoulder of Vladamir Putin is for many reasons, but the understanding, recognition and appreciation of Russia would go a long way in bringing some of the heat down between Russia and the West. The problem is, when Russia behaves like a bully, in many people’s minds, it is hard to show friendship and understanding.The control Putin has over Russian media also means that the Russian people do not see stories from the West often.
Sports is a unifier and a divider. It is all in how one looks at it.
The spirit of the ancient Olympics continues to inspire. It is said that during the Olympic festivals that wars would stop out of respect for the events.
I believe in the unifying effort of the Olympics. I also believe that one must have consequences for their actions.
In that light, I have to say just how ironic it is that the IAAF and Seb Coe, the IAAF President have stood up to pressure and kept the ban of Russian athletics in place. After all of the attacks that the IAAF survived, it must be noted that the IAAF is banning Russian Athletics and also showing them a clear path to return to athletics. But, that will take time.
The IOC decision is a disappointment, but it is not surprising. Thomas Bach has to deal with global politics and Vladamir Putin is a worthy adversary and supporter of global sport and politics. How does one admonish a man who can put the world into even more anxious times and also keep the conversations open?
There will be some Russian athletes in Rio. My guess, there will be few track athletes and many fewer Russian athletes than would have been expected. I will miss them, as Russia plays a huge part in the global pagentry that is the Olympics. But, there must be repurcussions to actions not approved by the global sport community.
Will Russia change its approach to sport?
For the fans of world sport, I sure hope so.