If the International Community Takes Corruption in Sports Seriously, Russia Should Be Banned from the 2020 Olympics

Corruption in sports has been recognized as a serious and systemic problem (see here and here). One of the most egregious examples of sports-related corruption is Russia’s state-sponsored doping program. A 2015 report issued by an independent commission of the World Anti-Doping Agency found that this program involved athletes, coaches, trainers, doctors, and Russian institutions. Some of the most serious allegations were that members of the Russian secret service (the FSB) had pressured lab workers to cover up positive drug testing results (with one lab destroying more than 1,400 samples), top Russian sports officials submitting fake urine samples, and athletes assuming false identities, paying for destruction of positive doping results, and bribing anti-doping authorities. The former director of Russia’s anti-doping lab, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, has provided additional explanations as to how he and others, including FSB agents, enabled doping for the country’s athletes.

In light of these revelations, WADA recommended that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ban Russia in the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics; however the IOC permitted each sport to consider individual athletes for participation. After an additional 2016 investigation known as the McLaren report produced additional evidence regarding Russian violations, the IOC did ban Russia from the 2018 Winter Olympics, and banned several individual athletes for life, but the IOC permitted 168 Russians to compete neutrally as “Olympic Athletes from Russia.” WADA reinstated Russia’s Anti-Doping Agency as compliant with the World Anti-Doping Code in September 2018, subject to two conditions: (1) Russian anti-doping authorities must accept the McLaren report findings; and (2) Russia must make data in its Moscow laboratory available to WADA inspection.

Yet Russia has not learned its lesson:

  • With respect to the first condition of reinstatement, that Russia accept the findings of the McLaren report, the Russian Ministry of Sport issued a statement that, “The Russian Federation fully accepted the decision of the IOC Executive Board of 5 December 2017 that was made based on the findings of the Schmid Report [which endorsed the McLaren report findings].” This is, at best, bare-bones compliance, and it lacks credibility given that, notwithstanding this statement, Putin and other Russian government officials continue to dramatically minimize the doping problem. Until the Russian state broadly acknowledges blatant wrongdoing and shows actual efforts at compliance, it lacks even a minimal degree of credibility. And many of the key figures in the doping scandal are still around. Although the former Deputy Sports Minister resigned, the Minister of Sport during the state-sponsored program timeframe, Vitaly Mutko (who almost certainly knew about the scheme) was promoted to the Deputy Prime Minister of Russia. Furthermore, Russia’s treatment of Rodchenkov, who blew the whistle on the doping scheme, shows Russia’s dangerous disparagement of whistleblowers and control of its agency officials’ statements and actions. Russian authorities charged Rodchenkov as a drug trafficker and sought his extradition, and his family’s passports were confiscated. A former head of Russia’s Olympic Committee called for his execution, and the Kremlin has attempted to discredit him. After mounting intelligence of Russian threats on Rodchenkov, U.S. authorities placed him in the federal witness protection program. Given all this, while Russia did issue a perfunctory statement that it accepts the McLaren report’s findings, Russia has done nothing to indicate that it actually acknowledges and takes responsibility for serious wrongdoing.
  • With respect to the second condition of reinstatement, regarding access to the Moscow testing lab, Russia missed the original deadline to grant WADA access to that lab; WADA eventually granted WADA access in January 2019. On September 23, 2019, WADA reported that data it received from the Moscow lab contained “inconsistencies.” The chairman of WADA’s compliance panel further stated that there was evidence data had been deleted. Russia’s Anti-Doping Agency and the Russian Ministry of Sport were given three weeks to respond to WADA, and may face a ban from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as a result. Surprisingly, the Agency’s director, Yuri Ganus, confirmed the allegations on October 14. WADA’s meeting scheduled on October 23 to consider Russian Minister of Sport’s explanations was postponed, but on November 25, WADA’s Compliance Review Committee recommended that Russia face a four-year ban on global sports and that Russian athletes only compete neutrally at the 2020 Olympics. A final ruling from WADA is expected on December 9.

WADA and the IOC have been widely and consistently criticized for failing to do enough to address Russia’s doping problem, and these institutions’ credibility is very much at stake.

The only sanction that would be adequate under the circumstances is to ban Russia from participation in the 2020 Olympics. Bans are not new to the Olympics. Kuwait, for example, had been suspended by the IOC due to government interference. In July 2019, the IOC lifted this suspension, citing a “successful implementation of a roadmap agreed between all parties.” Kuwait had revised the sports law that had been found to create the government interference and agreed to establish a process for elections of all sports organizations. In contrast, Russia has done nothing to show it deserves to be able to participate in the Olympic Games. This does not necessarily mean that individual athletes from Russia might not be able to compete, if they can show that they are not using performance-enhancing drugs. But a ban on Russia as a country from sending a state delegation would send an appropriate statement that the enforcement agencies are taking Russia’s compliance failures seriously. The world will see that any Russian athletes who participate are competing neutrally, which would send an appropriate message. If WADA does anything short of that, its credibility will be in jeopardy.

9 thoughts on “If the International Community Takes Corruption in Sports Seriously, Russia Should Be Banned from the 2020 Olympics

  1. Thank you for this fascinating post, Masha. I do think that purely on the corruption grounds Russia might need to be banned completely. However, looking at the Olympics as a forum of good-natured competition between nations and de-escalation between states, completely removing the Russian delegation might be more detrimental to solving bigger picture issues. That’s the dove’s perspective. The counter to that is Russia’s actions undermine the true spirit of the Olympics (fair competition between equals) and continuing to allow it to compete further legitimizes its leadership’s actions around the world. At the end of the day, I am not quite sure where I come out on the issue, but I do think the corruption angle is just one of many considerations (as tends to be the case).

    • Thanks for your comment, Jacques. These are great points regarding the overall spirit of the Olympics bringing states together. Another aspect of what I think of as this spirit, which I didn’t emphasize in this post, is fairness to the athletes that work so hard to get there without using performance-enhancing drugs. Russia’s actions are also undermining their years of efforts. I think allowing Russian athletes to compete individually and neutrally strikes a good balance with respect to the interests of athletes who do want to participate, cleanly. But banning Russia as a state entity sends the signal that world authorities will not legitimize its actions around the world, as you put it.

  2. A very interesting read! I think on the whole, you’re absolutely right. This sort of state sponsored, widespread doping should not be tolerated. To maintain the integrity of the Olympics and to send a message that sports should be an arena free of corruption, I would agree that Russia should be penalized for their actions.
    However, I think it’s important to consider this is likely not an isolated event in an isolated country. The Russian scheme was only discovered after whistleblowers reported the systemic doping, which then triggered an investigation. Time and again it has been shown all sorts of sports organizations are savvy in covering up misconduct. A few examples in the U.S. alone include Larry Nassar’s sexual assault covered up by USA Gymnastics, Lance Armstrong’s own doping covered up by the International Cycling Union, and Jerry Sandusky’s child abuse covered up by Penn State. While these are obviously different scenarios than state-sponsored doping, I do not think it’s a far jump to believe there could be on-going doping schemes in other countries currently being covered up.
    So perhaps banning Russia is not the best option in this scenario, I’m not sure. WADA and the IOC should consider re-evaluating their standards and monitoring methods for all countries. As Jacques Singer-Emery mentioned, the Olympics attempt to de-escalate political tensions for a period. The Olympics’ own vision is “Building a better world through sport.” Russia is clearly not responding well to having a proverbial finger pointed at them. So, to expand the investigation or perhaps develop new requirements for all countries participating in the Olympics, would take the heat off of Russia and in turn maybe encourage them to comply with regulations moving forward. It will be interesting to see what the outcome is on Monday.

    • Thanks for your insightful comment! It is a great point that these investigations are often triggered by whistleblowers, so it is hard to even know if any other actors are covering up misconduct. I certainly agree that there should be investigations of any other such event, but I am also not sure how to make sure that the misconduct is unearthed other than imposing more stringent regulations and oversight. And it shouldn’t let Russia off the hook just because other entities are also doing it.

  3. Thank you Masha for this post, it has come together really nicely. Also a very timely post as news reports have indicated that a four year ban could be headed Russia’s way very soon. The illustration of Kuwait is useful for a comparative perspective on where bans have actually worked. Your arguments that the only credible option for the IOC is to ban Russia from the Olympics are persuasive, though I wonder what would make them comply this time, unlike others?

    • Thanks for your comment, Inayat. That is a great point regarding whether Russia will actually learn its lesson with this latest ban. As Duffy points out below, WADA did ban Russia for four years from all major sporting events (see https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/09/sports/russia-doping-ban.html). The NY Times reports that this is the most severe punishment for a doping scandal yet. Yet as some WADA officials note in the article, it may still be too lax since Russian athletes are permitted to compete neutrally. Hopefully the increased severity of the sanction makes a deterrent impact, but we will see.

  4. Thanks for this great post Masha. It looks like Wada listened to your advice with them banning Russia for four years from all major sporting events. Happy international anti-corruption day!

  5. The use of performance enhancement drugs in sports presents the same moral problems in which corruption is based: cheating, deception, disloyalty, promise-breaking. Athletes are considered examples and leaders by many people. When they play fairly, they educate their fans. The ban of doping and the adoption of harsh measures against its use send a powerful message of honesty to society. It helps in the promotion of anti-corruption values at large. The exclusion of Russia from the 2020 Summer Olympics and from the 2022 Soccer World Cup are welcomed.

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