Russian doping, and pick-up truck wisdom

Seems like it was only earlier this year that a great many voices were being heard to the effect that the World Anti-Doping Agency, and in particular its president, Craig Reedie, and director general, Olivier Niggli, were ineffective and caught up in this or that conflict of interest.

Now WADA has obtained (via a whistleblower) an electronic file that it says contains “all testing data” from Russia’s national doping lab conducted from January 2012 to August 2015. That’s thought to be thousands of drug tests run on Russian athletes. 

Kudos to WADA and, as well, to Reedie and Niggli.

 WADA president Craig Reedie and director general Olivier Niggli at Thursday's news conference in Seoul // Getty Images

WADA president Craig Reedie and director general Olivier Niggli at Thursday's news conference in Seoul // Getty Images

With the file in hand, WADA on Thursday declined to lift its suspension of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency. 

At issue now is whether the Russians should take part — under the Russian flag, wearing the Russian colors, hearing the Russian anthem — in the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.

That’s not up to WADA. That’s up to the International Olympic Committee, due to decide in early December.

Again, there are a great many voices shouting to be heard. But this is not a matter for shouting. This is neither about taking sanctimonious refuge nor about seeking to impose “punishment.” 

Instead, the premise that lies at the core of this vexing dilemmas is as it ever was:

The Olympics, plain and simple, are about inclusion. 

That means the Russians should be in PyeongChang, with their red, white and blue flag, and if a Russian athlete wins — and goodness knows the Russians have been tested up, down and sideways over the past two years — he or she should hear the Russian anthem.

In an op-ed published a few days ago to mark 100 days to go until the PyeongChang opening ceremony, the IOC president, Thomas Bach, called the Games the “only event that brings the world together in peaceful competition,” and added: 

“The Olympic Games are universal. They stand above and beyond all the differences that divide us. In our fragile world that seems to be drifting apart, the Olympic Games have the power to unite humanity in all its diversity.”

Perhaps the most important thing each and every one of us has in life is dignity. 

The only way Bach’s words carry real meaning is if “humanity in all its diversity” is there. That means, first, the Russians are included. Next, that means the Russians bear the dignity of being Russian, not some stateless waifs competing under a neutral flag.

To be clear: no matter what the IOC decides, there is going to be criticism.

With that in mind:

There’s a guy who lives down the street in our neighborhood here in Los Angeles who has absolutely nothing to do with Russia, the Olympics or geopolitics but who can offer keen insight into this — and a lot of other — situations. On the back of his old beat-up white pick-up truck, he has spray-painted in black letters: “Anger makes us stupid.”

Thus, in a bid to set aside the heated rhetoric from many different (warning: Olympic jargon here) stakeholders, it’s worth exploring — calmly — a great many questions and answers.

Question: Is the Cold War over?

Answer: Yes. This is not the 2017 version of Rocky IV.

Question: Is this about the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Hillary Clinton, WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden, Robert Mueller, Paul Manafort, Facebook ads or anything of the sort? 

Answer: No. To quote Sting, the Russians love their children, too.

Question: Who has the moral high ground here?

Answer: No one.

To listen to certain anti-doping agency crusaders is to believe that the world’s athletes want the Russians banned from PyeongChang. 

As if the rest of — or if you prefer, the majority of — the world’s athletes are, you know, clean.

Especially athletes from, you know, the west.

Maybe they are. 

Even so, in assessing high-level sport a reliable path is to be skeptical.

The tests prove nothing. They only prove that an athlete passed that test. Lance Armstrong passed hundreds.

If you want to believe that the world’s athletes are clean, herewith, again, this passage from what is called the Reasoned Decision, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s crime novel-like explanation of how Armstrong and a “small army of enablers” indulged in a systemic manipulation that USADA would describe as a “massive team doping scheme, more extensive than any previously recorded in professional sport history”:

“Twenty of the twenty-one podium finishers in the Tour de France from 1999 through 2005 have been directly tied to likely doping through admissions, sanctions, public investigations or exceeding the UCI [cycling federation] hematocrit threshold. Of the forty-five (45) podium finishes during the time period between 1996 and 2010, thirty-six (36) were by riders similarly tainted by doping.”

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Question: So the difference between the Armstrong matter and now is the involvement of the Russian — what? 

Answer: The United States practices sports capitalism. Everywhere else Olympic sport is connected to the government in some fashion. The issue is, in the Russian context, what “state” means.

Even Professor Richard McLaren, by his second of his two reports into what happened in Russia, moved off the notion of “state-directed” involvement to “institutionalized manipulation.” 

The Russians will never, and perhaps justifiably, accept the notion of “state”-whatever because that points way too high on the ladder. To call it “institutionalized manipulation,” however, is a deliberately fashioned nuance — one that would give the Russians wiggle room to do what WADA demands, which is publicly acknowledge the McLaren outcomes while simultaneously proclaim they were nonetheless conducting their own investigations or inquiries. 

So far, hasn’t happened. Unclear if or when it can or will happen.

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Question: Because that didn’t happen, and because WADA’s suspension of RUSADA is still in place — what does that mean for the IOC decision?

Answer: Maybe a lot. Maybe nothing.

For media purposes, it ratchets up the what-if’s heading toward the IOC meeting.

Substantively, WADA is trying to get the Russian doping apparatus compliant. 

A clue, perhaps, to the IOC’s very different mission, from this quote in a New York Times interview with Bach this week:

“I think everybody would like to see RUSADA working at full speed so that the Russian athletes can be tested,” he said, using the acronym for the Russian anti-doping agency. “The past has to be sanctioned. The question now is about the future, and these are two different things.”

The IOC’s different thing, moreover, to repeat what Bach said elsewhere, is to try to bring people from all over together. 

In the context of the Russian doping matter, the IOC also must keep confronting the tension in trying to assign individual accountability from collective responsibility. Here, Bach and the IOC have been relentless in insisting on due process for each and every person.

Question: if you were accused of wrongdoing or misconduct, wouldn’t you want all the process due you?

Answer: You bet you would.

Question: if you were a 17-year-old female figure skater and you lived in Detroit and you had never so much as taken a swig of beer, would you want to be judged by the conduct of a grizzled 36-year-old cross-country skier you had never met who lived in Anchorage, Alaska?

Answer: Obviously not.

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Question: So why should the Russians be treated any differently?

Answer: Thanks.

Question: Did you see “Icarus”?

Answer: Better question — did you read the thought-provoking column written earlier this week at their blog by Don Catlin, who in 1982 founded the UCLA lab, the first anti-doping lab in the United States, and son Oliver; together they run a leading group of research organizations. 

Reasonable people can disagree agreeably, and this space might disagree with the Catlins about some of their positions (for instance, the use of the term “state-directed”) and suggestions for sanction. That’s OK.

Even so, their perspective about Grigoriy Rodchenkov, the former director of the Moscow lab and arguably the central figure in the entire saga, is worth strong consideration, because, as they write, “We were your friends, your colleagues …”

Rodchenkov is currently being protected by the U.S. Department of Justice for reasons that have yet to be explained. 

When it comes to Rodchenkov, there are so many questions: his intent, motive, relationships and more. The full story of the Russian doping story deserves a Rodchenkov examination, and cross-examination, under oath — and there’s an argument to be made that it hardly seems like any sort of justice, for anyone, until not just what he knows but who he is can be fully tested.

The Catlins write:

“While we appreciate much of the perspectives Grigory shares, and also his apology to those he disappointed since we fall into that group, we still have some questions regarding his explanation and reasoning. The biggest question remains: Why did he participate in Russia’s fraudulent state-directed doping for so long without trying to expose it earlier on ethical grounds, and exactly how long was the activity going on?”

Also:

“But Grigory, we must ask, why … did you not come out earlier to expose the scandal for the benefit of clean athletes? Why did you wait until your life was threatened? You could have come to us at any point and we would have done everything possible to help you expose whatever was occurring in the right way — and do what was possible to protect your family in the process. You chose not to take that path, and that is unfortunate. Now you want to wash your hands of any responsibility?”

Question: Back to the IOC. How is its decision-making process like Jenga, the classic block-stacking game?

 Angela Ruggiero and Tony Estanguet with president Thomas Bach at the IOC athletes' forum // IOC

Angela Ruggiero and Tony Estanguet with president Thomas Bach at the IOC athletes' forum // IOC

Answer: Maybe that imaginary cross-country skier has been passing around those beers. How did you come up with that transition?

OK. Here goes: 

No matter what, the IOC cannot afford to have the end game be crash-bang-boom. That is, all that is Olympic and international sport be at significant risk.  

This is not melodrama. For one, the men’s soccer World Cup is summer 2018 in Russia. FIFA is not the IOC and in some contexts, the two compete. But, overall, the IOC, FIFA and, for that matter, all sports entities share the same interest: stability.

Bach is all about stability. He has made this abundantly plain. A ban of any sort involving the Russians — or action that would prompt the Russians to stay away, such as the notion of competing under a neutral flag — would seem hugely destabilizing.

As Bach said in a speech earlier this month to the Assn. of National Olympic Committees, referring to the double award of 2024 and 2028 to Paris and Los Angeles: “… Enjoying 11 years of stability with two such outstanding Olympic cities and countries is really an achievement we can build on.” Two sentences later: “But also to enjoy stability in this world is possibly the most valuable currency in the world at this time.”

In 2014, just months into Bach’s presidency, NBC agreed to pay the IOC $7.75 billion to extend its U.S. broadcasting rights for the Games through 2032. From the IOC press release: “The agreement is a major contribution to the long-term financial stability of the entire Olympic movement.” Next paragraph, quoting Bach: “This agreement is excellent news for the entire Olympic movement as it helps to ensure its financial security in the long term …” 

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Question: If Bach is the No. 1 most important person in international sport, where on the short list is Russian president Vladimir Putin?

Answer: Indisputably among the top five.

When Bach was elected IOC president four years ago, Putin was the first to call him, within minutes.

The 2014 Winter Games were in Russia. The 2013 track and field championships. The 2015 world swim championships. That 2018 World Cup. 

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Question: They say it’s important to listen to who is not talking and what is not being said. Who has not called for the Russians to be banned?

Answer: What a fascinating list. 

The South Koreans, for one. Not hardly. The 2018 Games will be a non-NHL event, and the Kontinental Hockey League — run now by the former head of the Sochi 2014 Games — is threatening to take a hard line if the IOC goes hard, too.

Tokyo 2020 organizers. (To be fair, the Japanese anti-doping agency is listed in a September press release in which a number of national anti-doping agencies asserted that "IOC inaction imperils clean athletes and the future of the Olympic movement.")

The Chinese. Remember, Beijing — which staged the Summer Games in 2008 — will now play host to the 2022 Winter Games. 

Have the seven international winter sports federations been braying for the Russians to stay home? 

Look at the front page of the International Biathlon Union website — there’s the Russian Anton Shipulin. 

The Sochi 2014 women’s figure skating champion, Adelina Sotnikova, is — Russian. (Reportedly cleared of involvement in doping.) The 2016 and 2017 women’s figure skating world champion, Janny Medvedeva, the odds-on favorite for gold in PyeongChang, is — Russian.

And on and on.

Question: is the Olympics a world unto itself?

Answer: No.

It’s important to remember that the Olympics are a piece of our world. Also, sports and politics are for sure intertwined. To seek to sanction the Russians for sports doping is to assume that such action would hold no consequence beyond the Olympics, or sport. That assumption has to be seriously questioned.

Back to that WADA database. In recent days, Mr. Putin, clearly mindful that WADA had the file in hand, spoke out after the IOC had sanctioned four Russian cross-country skiers for doping at the Sochi Games.

 Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump at the APEC Summit last Saturday in Vietnam // Getty Images 

Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump at the APEC Summit last Saturday in Vietnam // Getty Images 

Mr. Putin cited a web of “connections and dependencies” in international sport, and accused the United States of inventing doping allegations against Russian athletes in a bid to influence next year’s Russian presidential election.

The 2018 Games are in February. The Russian election is in March.

Substantively, these remarks are almost surely so much smoke on the water. 

Even so, what happens with the Russians and the Olympics is way more than just the Olympics. 

Any move to ban the Russians — or, again, action that prompts the Russians to opt out — would, in Russia, almost surely be considered a colossal provocation depicted as national humiliation. 

That is the complete opposite of what the Olympics, indeed the Olympic spirit, is supposed to be about.

Mr. Putin is speaking for the record, already. That’s a strong signal. The Olympic world ought to pay keen attention.