Most Americans don’t know them from a hole in the wall, which strangely enough became an escape route for dirty urine samples. To us, they are names we have trouble pronouncing and faces we rarely recognize. Russian athletes today were raised by parents from a generation of secrets and suspicion.
Americans wanted to believe all was good when the Cold War ended some 25 years ago. We wanted to believe Russians were free of corruption, free of the Iron Curtain, free in the way that we were free. All these years later, however, it remains a country we never understood and kept at a distance.
It explains why many Americans shrugged their shoulders upon learning this week, through an independent investigation commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, that a “vast majority” of Russian athletes beat dirty urine tests and falsified records in a state-run scheme across three Olympics and other competitions.
Why, of course they did because that’s what Russia does.
Athletes have been using performance-enhancing drugs for decades, but individual transgressions seemed less damning than covert institutional operations. We now look at Russia the way we viewed juiced-up East German athletes in the late ’60s and ’70s, when the men were men and so were the women.
If it were Sweden, perhaps people would have been mildly surprised. But because it was Russia, it was fully expected. It fell in line with how we perceived Russia because that’s how we grew up thinking about Russia. We are innocent until proven guilty, but to us they remain guilty until proven innocent.
That doesn’t mean everyone. It never does. Generally, though, not enough time has passed, and not enough good will has been shared between the two countries in politics and sports, to embrace one another. We remain apprehensive toward Russia and its people. In essence, we don’t trust them.
And they don’t trust us.
To be sure, and to be fair, it’s not a one-way street. We’re quick to admonish Russia for filth while having dirt on our own hands. Let’s not forget Lance Armstrong and Tyler Hamilton and Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery and a long list of other shamed, dismissed and forgotten Olympic athletes in the United States.
Numerous sports governing bodies, perhaps another vast majority, were more suspicious of U.S. athletes using performance-enhancing drugs than they were Russia. The obvious difference is that Russia’s government has been implicated in leading the charge. It was a massive scheme involving at least 312 athletes and likely many more. Literally and figuratively, it brought cheating in sports to a new level.
It’s easy to imagine Russian athletes walking into a testing room with a urine cup, removing a picture from the wall and exchanging a dirty sample for a clean one through a hole connected to a secret room. If that’s not exactly what happened, it’s essentially what happened, according to the recent McLaren Report.
What’s the punishment?
Well, that needs to be sorted out sooner than later. The Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, which had the makings of a fiasco long before the Russian doping scandal, are a few weeks away. Russia’s track and field team already had been banned from the Olympics before the latest mess.
The International Olympic Committee, once loud and proud about its zero-tolerance policy, has been under pressure to banish Russia from the Rio Games in all sports. It includes 68 athletes who have been deemed clean. Zero tolerance means zero tolerance, not limited tolerance in the case of large contingents.
Our instincts suggest kicking them out and watching them suffer. Maybe it would send a message about sportsmanship and fairness. The Olympics should be about bringing people together in competition, not winning at all costs. Despite our passion for sports, we’re not winning wars with the 100-meter hurdles.
If only it were that easy.
One problem with banning Russia is that the IOC, often the judge and jury, lacks credibility. The governing body for years has been suspected of accepting kickbacks from host countries, including Russia for the 2014 Sochi Games. WADA wants Russian government officials banned from all international competition.
Money is always an issue. The Olympics are presented as competition between countries, but it’s a multibillion-dollar industry that relies heavily on television rights and other sponsors such as Coca-Cola and Visa.
If money disappears because Russia is allowed to compete, or if Russia-based sponsors pull out because it’s not allowed to compete, it hurts the bottom line.
While I certainly wouldn’t put anything past Russia, and I’m not in position to disagree with the findings in the report, it’s strange that the cheating scandal was released less than a month before Opening Ceremonies in Rio. It makes you wonder if something equally sinister is happening behind the scenes.
Russia’s fate is before the Court of Arbitration in Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, where IOC is headquartered. A decision concerning the country’s participation in Rio is expected Sunday. Something tells me Russia will be spared, that enough athletes will keep the money flowing through the IOC.
But it’s hardly a conclusion. Russia could be banned, but it will be back. Authorities will continue the war against performance-enhancing drugs, but doping will continue. Skeptics like me are left viewing international competition in much the same manner Americans viewed Russians during the Cold War. In a secret society, everybody is guilty until proven innocent. The cold truth: Nobody should be trusted when it comes to the Olympics. It’s become a cesspool – with holes.