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.

2 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).

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