The altogether cleverness of 'Olympic Athlete from Russia'

In taking action Tuesday on the Russian doping matter, the International Olympic Committee was faced with the delicate task of trying to thread a needle while wearing a pair of those red mittens that were all the rage at the Vancouver Olympics way back when in 2010, which, you know, is more or less when — because the Russian team performed so poorly there — this sordid tale began, right?

The task at hand was to make it seem like the IOC was coming down hard on the Russians — to appease the baying jackals of the western press, in particular the Americans and the Brits — while simultaneously crafting a diplomatic compromise that would serve the IOC’s long-term purposes.

IOC president Thomas Bach at Tuesday's news conference // IOC via Flickr

IOC president Thomas Bach at Tuesday's news conference // IOC via Flickr

The IOC, seeking to balance a multitude of interests, got what it wanted.

The initial reports screamed out over the news and social media in our 24/7 gotta-have-it tell-me-what-it-means-this-instant world: Ban! Ban! Ban! 

Reality: the IOC made a play for what it always plays for, stability.

The more sophisticated argument, because as always the real work is in the details, is that the Russians are getting off way easier than would seem at first blush. 

If Russian president Vladimir Putin says OK to the IOC plan — odds are this has all been worked out — significant numbers of Russian athletes will not be banned but instead will be at the forthcoming PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics, just as they should be.

For the IOC, this endeavor was as much about optics as it was substance. It had to look tough. But it also had to be mindful of political, diplomatic and other essential if not existential realities.

The IOC really had no choice but to do what it did: sanction the suits, meaning various Russian sports officials, while allowing “clean” Russian athletes to take part in PyeongChang, assuming — again — that Putin signs off.

“Clean”? What does that mean?

Pass drug tests. No Sochi 2014 involvement. 

Of course, it really means nothing if an athlete from Russia — or anywhere — passes one, or a million, drug tests. It meant nothing at the time of Marion Jones. Or Lance Armstrong. It means especially nothing now, given micro-dosing and the advent of other sophisticated techniques. But these were what the IOC said were its rules, which it should be noted seemed to lack clearly defined standards. So be it.

That flurry of first press reports suggested that such Russians would be “neutral” athletes. Indeed, it is the case that any such athletes on any podiums would not see the Russian flag or hear the Russian anthem.

But — and this is the big catch, to avoid the threat of boycott from Putin — the IOC said such athletes could compete under the name “Olympic Athlete from Russia.”


So: like, they’re not from Russia but they obviously are; and the medal standings won’t officially say Russian Federation but everyone in the world will know that OAR means Russia; and the OAR designation includes the word “Russia,” and the whole thing is altogether very clever, and this is why sometimes you really can thread a needle while wearing mittens.

Compare: when athletes from Kuwait, where the national Olympic committee has been involved in a long-running dispute over a governance battle, took part at the Rio 2016 Games, they were called “Independent Olympic Athlete.”

See the difference? “Olympic Athlete from Russia.”

This is why, when they left the IOC’s Lausanne, Switzerland, headquarters on Tuesday after the whole things was announced, a Russian delegation was hardly upset. 

“They’ll be called Russian athletes and not some kind of neutrals … that’s very important,” said Russian Olympic Committee president Alexander Zhukov, who was also suspended from his IOC membership because that IOC spot is linked to his ROC position, and the ROC was, well, suspended “with immediate effect.”

At least for a little bit.

A little context here, for explanation.

Paragraph V of the IOC’s policy-making executive board’s Tuesday decision formally withdrew from the Beijing 2022 coordination commission — the IOC’s oversight panel — the head of the Sochi 2014 Games, Dmitry Chernyshenko. By Tuesday evening, his name was already gone from the roster. 

Ah — but who is the chair of that Beijing 2022 commission? Zhukov. 

Zhukov’s name is still listed. Just — with an asterisk. Apparently, there’s no plan for him to be leaving anytime soon.

The IOC executive board at Tuesday's meeting // IOC via Flickr

The IOC executive board at Tuesday's meeting // IOC via Flickr

In IOC world, relationships matter, and a lot. 

So the way this is likely to go down is right there in Paragraph IX, where it explains that the IOC may — as soon as the closing ceremony in PyeongChang — “partially or fully lift the suspension of the ROC … provided these decisions are fully respected and implemented by the ROC and by the invited athletes and officials.”


Zhukov and the others at various levels of Russian leadership have to sit out PyeongChang. The Russian flag might well fly again as soon as that closing ceremony. Lots of legal battles yet await, in particular over how much due process implicated Russian athletes genuinely have been afforded, given the time pressures at work to resolve cases before Tuesday and, moreover, the overall credibility of former Moscow lab director Grigory Rodchenkov, now under the protection of the agency that President Trump in a Dec. 2 tweet called the U.S. “Justice” Department — that’s right, “Justice” in quotes.

To be clear, the  Russians have not and will never acknowledge state involvement in what Canadian professor Richard McLaren, in Report Two, described as “institutionalized manipulation.” For them, “state” means Putin. That’s a non-starter. 

This is why the IOC has had to thread needles, and very, very carefully.

Big picture, sports doping is assuredly a big challenge. Like, a really big challenge. 

But the IOC has a bigger mission: to bring the athletes of the world together. That means everyone. Everyone means Russians, too.

The Olympics, as this space has noted frequently, are at their core about inclusion. That’s why the Nigerian bobsled team is now a thing. Why the oiled-up Tonga flag-bearer guy from Rio is trying to make it to PyeongChang as a cross-country skier. 

More: the North Koreans might be in PyeongChang but the Russians would not? Come on.

Meanwhile, there are many worse problems in our world to consider, particularly — hypothetically speaking, of course— the potential jeopardy of an Olympic Games on the Korean peninsula to be held just 40 or so miles from a hermetic kingdom whose leader has been setting off nuclear bombs. That particular nation shares a northern border with — let’s check that map — China and, lookee here, Russia.

About a year into his IOC presidency, Bach made plain that assuredly sports and politics do mix. In a 2014 speech at the Asian Games in, of all, places given everything now, South Korea — karma can sometimes be way too real — Bach said:

“In the past, some have said that sport has nothing to do with politics, or they have said that sport has nothing to do with money or business. And this is just an attitude which is wrong and which we cannot afford anymore.

“We are living in the middle of society and that means we have to partner up with the politicians who run this world.”

If you don’t think that Vladimir Putin is among those who run this world, you had better check yourself into doping control.