The notion that sports and politics are separate realms is well entrenched in some circles, but decades of evidence contradicts it. Hitler didn’t think so in 1936 when he used the Summer OIympics in Berlin to highlight his racist and nationalist theories. After World War II the Communist Bloc nations, led by the Soviet Union, made athletic success a cornerstone of their assertions about the primacy of socialism. East Germany in particular carried out a systematic program of doping to enhance its medal counts in Olympic swimming, track and field and other sports. The primitive state of knowledge in the 1970s and ‘80s about the long-term consequences of steroid use left a trail of genetic damage in that sad country’s wake.
No nation, however, has manipulated sports and the athletes who play them to the extent that Vladimir Putin’s Russia has. A stream of reports has laid out a pattern of drug abuse that has stretched back for years and corrupted the results of numerous events, including the Summer and Winter Olympic Games dating at least from 2008. The most recent of these, published in December by the World Anti-Doping Agency, said that more than 1,000 Russian athletes in 30 sports have been involved, and this may be only the visible part of the iceberg.
“It is impossible to know just how deep and far back this conspiracy goes,” said Richard McLaren, WADA’s Canadian point man. He added that “immutable facts” made clear that “for years international sports competitions have been hijacked by the Russians.”
Although allegations of widespread Russian doping had been circulating for years, the first definitive evidence surfaced last May, just before the Summer Games in Rio. The primary source was none other than Grigory Rodchenkov, who’d directed the country’s athletics-drug-testing laboratory from 2005 through 2015 before escaping for his life to the United States after information about the machinations began to leak. He told the New York Times that not only had he falsified numerous positive drug tests during that period, he also ran the program that prescribed and prepared the potions the athletes took. In other words, in Putin’s Russia the dopers and the testers were one and the same.
The effort, Rodchenkov said, peaked at the 2014 Winter Olympics the Russians hosted in Sochi, where clean urine samples by the score were smuggled through a hole in the wall of the main testing facility, to be substituted for tainted samples while agents of Russia’s counterpart of our FBI stood guard. It sounded like something out of an Austin Powers movie, but it rang true.
That story broke less than 90 days before the start of the Rio Games, leaving Olympics’ officials scrambling for a response. The Games’ formal motto is “Citius, Altius, Fortius,” which is Latin for “faster, higher, stronger,” but the real motto is “the show must go on,” and it applies no matter what the circumstances. Rather than slapping a much-deserved blanket ban on Russian participation, the International Olympic Committee punted the matter to the individual governing bodies of the fest’s 26 sports. A few—most notably track and field and weightlifting—sent the Russians packing, but most equivocated under one guise or another. In all, 291 Russian athletes were allowed to march and compete. They won 55 medals, the fourth-most on the national table.
Equally important, no action was taken on the future competitions Russia was schedule to host, including the 2018 soccer World Cup, the most-important (and lucrative) international event outside the Olympic calendar. This was despite Russia’s response to the doping charges, which, typically, has consisted mainly of blustery denials and attacks on those bringing them. Apparently, there’s no Russian word for “shame.”
But the new allegations, which show that the Russian plot was wider and deeper than was supposed last summer, is having an effect. Interestingly, the gutsiest salvo came not from any of the globe’s athletic superpowers but from little Latvia, a nation of about two million people on the Baltic Sea that spent almost 50 years as an imprisoned Soviet republic and still could be knocked over by a swipe of the Russian bear’s paw.
Small as it is, Latvia is a factor in winter sports, and a couple of weeks ago its sledding federation announced it would boycott the world skeleton and bobsled championships scheduled for Sochi in February. While previous protests were limited to grumbling by individual athletes, Latvia took a public and forthright stance. Sochi, the Latvian organization declared in a statement, is “the place where the Olympic spirit was stolen in 2014. Enough is enough.”
Facing a nation-by-nation boycott, the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation withdrew the entire competition. Other, similar actions followed, including the removal of World Cup events in speed skating and cross-country skiing.
The indictment of Russia continues to mount as retests of urine samples taken at past Summer and Winter Olympics proceed and more of its athletics are stripped of their medals. Sports boycotts are nothing new— witness the U.S. action against the 1980 Moscow Games for the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan and the retaliatory actions against the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Russian’s crimes against sport alone justify another, but if those aren’t enough throw in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, his abetting of the slaughter in Syria, his suppression of dissent at home and his schemes to undermine the internal politics of the U.S. and Europe.
The 2018 World Cup should be the target. That would get Putin’s attention, sure enough.