On the Russians: the Olympics are about inclusion

Prediction: the Russians will be at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games, and as Russians.

Assertion: the Russians should be at the PC 2018 Games, and as Russians.

Rationale: the central principle of the Olympic movement is inclusion. 

 WADA director general Olivier Niggli at the iOC assembly in Peru earlier this month // Getty Images

WADA director general Olivier Niggli at the iOC assembly in Peru earlier this month // Getty Images

With respect, because it is OK in the real world for reasonable people to disagree with civility about matters of policy, the zealous advocacy promoted by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, and aggressively in the pages of the New York Times in particular, misses the point. 

Seeking to punish Russia for “institutional manipulation” that occurred in 2013 and 2014 — when the World Anti-Doping Agency is now diligently following what it has termed a “road map” and the International Olympic Committee is itself pursuing two separate paths of inquiry — achieves, what?

Zero.

Indeed, it may likely prove counterproductive, and in ways we cannot predict, because we live in the moment and obviously cannot see the future.

But history has taught this, time and again: zealotry is hardly ever a winning play.

Instead, reasoned, calm, rational discussion is the way to go — especially in a movement that, again, rests on inclusion. 

Angry rhetoric can feel so righteous, right? Of course: yielding to grievance and conflict is easy. Solution is far more complex. But solution must be the objective. Once more, the wise words of Canadian professor Richard McLaren, from the second of his two reports on the Russian matter, in December 2016:

“It is time for everyone to step down from their positions and end the accusations against each other. I would urge international sport leadership to take account of what is known and contained in the Reports, use the information constructively to work together and correct what is wrong.”

With that in mind:

It is indeed a laudable objective to separate anti-doping agencies such as WADA, USADA and others from sport governing bodies. 

Similarly, the IOC, the U.S. Olympic Committee and — in the winter sports context — governing bodies such as FIS, which for Olympic purposes oversees international ski and snowboard competitions, should not be involved in doping adjudication.

No quarrel. Many reasonable people have come to those conclusions. 

It is a far more vexing endeavor to find the money to make anti-doping a priority. It is coming up on 20 years since the formation of WADA. That is, more or less, a generation. That’s enough time to make clear the painful reality that there needs to be a new funding model — because this 50-50 split between government and sport does not work effectively. There’s just not enough money, and everyone knows it.

Meanwhile, it is an entirely different matter to say that the Russians ought to be punished by the rest of the world and kept away from the 2018 Winter Games, especially with the Americans leading the charge, especially now. 

 IOC president Thomas Bach at the IOC session in Lima // Getty Images

IOC president Thomas Bach at the IOC session in Lima // Getty Images

Do you understand just how divisive President Trump truly is? Did the events of this past weekend, with the president's comments about the national anthem and the NFL, not underscore just that?

Outside the United States, do you understand how President Trump is seen — that is, depicted and caricatured? How unconstructive a meeting President Trump had with the IOC president Thomas Bach in June at the White House? 

Do you understand that the IOC president won a gold medal (in 1976 in Montreal, in fencing) and was himself excluded, because of the U.S.-led boycott, from the 1980 Moscow Games? Can you grasp this enduring truth: that 1980 boycott means Mr. Bach was forever denied the chance at a second (gold) medal? 

Do you recall that the IOC president — and IAAF president Sebastian Coe — were instrumental in sparking the athletes’ rights movement, appearing at a meeting that is now famous in Olympic history, in 1981 in Baden-Baden, Germany?

With all that, do you really think this IOC president is more or less receptive to calls for exclusion of athletes under their national colors when inclusion, dialogue and dignity are central to the entire Olympic proposition?

Come on.

Especially from an American-led entity — that is, USADA? When President Trump is such a divisive figure? 

To those in the Olympic scene in the United States, President Trump and USADA are not just two different things, apples and oranges — a more apt comparison might be turnips and walkie-talkies. Completely, totally different. To others elsewhere, President Trump and USADA are American. Full stop. Red, white, blue. American. 

It’s so, so easy to conflate anything and everything American right now. 

If you don’t understand this, you have not been to an Olympic-style meeting anywhere recently.

This is the way it is, and for USADA — and those who are jumping on its bandwagon — not to understand this is simply, profoundly naive.

As for the Russians:

This is how it played out before the Rio 2016 Games and how it is going to play out again before Korea in 2018, absent some unforeseen circumstance — and how, yes, it should play out, and not only because of the emotional context but also because of the legal and moral contexts, too.

No question there was big-time manipulation, as the reports from Mr. McLaren and before him, fellow Canadian Richard Pound, set forth.

We can all agree about that.

Here, though, is where we have to stop prosecuting the Cold War. 

You can like the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, or not. That’s irrelevant and immaterial. 

You can, for instance, like President George W. Bush or not. In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court reiterated that the U.S. Postal Service was assuredly part of the executive branch of the federal government. What, because USPS sponsored Lance Armstrong, we should hold President Bush responsible for what USADA termed “a massive team doping scheme, more extensive than any previously revealed in professional sports history”?

This is also why state involvement at some level gets very, very squishy. Of course there was state involvement in Russia. In every country but the United States, Olympic sport is an arm of some federal ministry or agency. What did you expect? 

This is where words, context, history, relationships and more matter. 

The postal service, for instance, is for sure part of government -- it's in the Constitution! -- but now not taxpayer funded. In Russia, state involvement does not immediately, emphatically and unequivocally mean “state-sanctioned.” The key variable, obviously, is what the word "state" means.

This is why the phraseology is now “institutional manipulation.”

This is where, to be fair, the Russians — and WADA has been clear about this, reiterating it again over the weekend after a meeting in Paris — must, among other items, publicly acknowledge the “reported outcomes” of the McLaren investigation. For this purpose, "Russians" can be defined: the Russian anti-doping agency, the Ministry of Sport and the Russian Olympic Committee. 

Cold War prosecutors, meanwhile, want to assume the worst. The assumption is that Putin and his deputy, Vitaly Mutko, knew everything about everything.

Facts, people. Where are the facts? 

In such instances, it’s intriguing to refer to the New York Times. 

In a Sept. 12 news story reporting that WADA had agreed to clear 95 of the first 96 athletes whose cases it had reviewed, the Times said that no one requested an interview with “the whistle blower Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov,” identifying him as Russia’s former anti-doping lab chief now living in the United States, “whose tell-all account prompted Mr. McLaren’s inquiry report.”

On Sept. 22, an op-ed published under Dr. Rodchenkov’s name appeared in the paper. It said, in part, “No one from WADA or the federations ever sought to interview me, though I was available and willing to cooperate.”

Query:

Shouldn’t Dr. Rodchenkov have told Mr. McLaren everything he had to say already?

Like, Mr. McLaren wrote two voluminous reports. 

Further, if Dr. Rodchenkov really had more to say, shouldn’t he voluntarily — through his lawyer, if he wanted, or perhaps through the Justice Department, which as the Times noted is protecting him — have made himself available?

If he had notes on individual athletes, why wait? 

Or, for that matter, anything? It's not like WADA is hard to find. Here's the phone number: +1-514-904-9232. It's right there under the "contact us" link on the WADA webpage.

It makes you wonder, you know:

Is Dr. Rodchenkov really, truly available? Doesn’t it also make sense that various authorities would have wanted to hear what he would have to say to try to prove up what are called ADRV cases — anti-doping rule violations? Have Dr. Rodchenkov’s FBI handlers made him available in such matters? Yes? Really? 

Hello?

In that op-ed, Dr. Rodchenkov also says, referring to Mutko, "If anyone believes I could have done all of this without the sports minister’s knowledge and support, they know nothing of Russia. Let me be clear: Mr. Mutko knew about, and was critical to the success of, Russia’s doping program. The very fact that Russia is pursuing criminal charges against me — and only me — for misusing my position tells one everything they need to know: This is a witch hunt, and I am the witch."

What Dr. Rodchenkov offers here in regard to Mr. Mutko -- and let's us be clear, in colorful language --  is a blanket assertion without a shred of evidence. The New York Times offered him a platform, which is totally fine. But let's be real. I was a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times for 17 years. If I had filed this sort of blanket assertion as part of a news account, the very first thing any reasonable editor would have said to me, and appropriately, would have been -- either you back this up, or it comes out of the story. Where are the emails? The memos? The phone call records?

Some further notes about Dr. Rodchenkov:

What, exactly, is the Justice Department’s keen interest in protecting him? Is he a potential witness in a developing federal case? If so, who is the ultimate target — who are the ultimate targets — of this investigation, being run out of the Eastern District of New York, meaning Brooklyn?

Dr. Rodchenkov obviously is not in the witness protection program; if he were, by now he would have a different identity. Is Dr. Rodchenkov being protected so the feds can go after senior Russian officials? Americans? Someone else? On what grounds and asserting what jurisdiction? And in this political climate?

Moreover, how much money is it costing American taxpayers to protect Dr. Rodchenkov? Where is the accounting? Why is sports doping in another country — or if another crime is to be alleged, a link to sports doping — a matter of such import to U.S. interests? 

The Justice Department has sought in recent years to make examples in other high-profile U.S. sports doping cases, and failed. See Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds. The U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles declined to prosecute Armstrong.

Yet this same Justice Department is protecting Dr. Rodchenkov. Why?

Back, in theory, to the Russians and the 2018 Games:

I may be the only journalist in the United States to have taken this position, maybe the only one in the west — if not the only, surely one of the few — but here goes again:

Without due process and individualized proof that meets an agreed-upon standard before an appropriate tribunal (beyond a reasonable doubt, clear and convincing, preponderance of the evidence, etc.), it is not appropriate to assign individual responsibility for “institutional manipulation.” 

It's that fundamental.

Meanwhile, the IOC, contrary to popular opinion, is not some sort of all-powerful wizard of Oz. The way the Olympic system works is that the IOC details to the individual sports federations the authority to run their sports at each edition of the Games. Thus it was totally normal and appropriate for the IOC to ask each summer sports federation to decide what to do about each batch, if you will, of Russians at the Rio 2016 Games.

The IAAF decided to keep the Russians out. This was a special case, as Bach and Coe have since acknowledged at a meeting this past summer in London, at the IAAF world championships in London, because the former president of the IAAF is at the core of the alleged wrongdoing.

The others made their own choices. Ultimately, 271 Russian athletes competed in Rio.

The International Paralympic Committee banned Russian athletes entirely. Bach did not attend the Paralympics. There were a variety of extenuating circumstances but — make of that what you will. 

The IAAF has allowed Russians to compete as neutral athletes provided they have been subject to certain anti-doping controls. The USADA-led plan has supported such an approach for the 2018 Games.

One more turn toward Dr. Rodchenkov's op-ed. He writes, "At a minimum, the IOC should require that Russian athletes be sequestered during the Games and subject to independent, stringent testing, and compete not for their country but as neutrals as punishment for Russia’s transgressions."

The IOC is not going to "sequester" the Russians as if this was long ago and they were lepers on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. Get real. The point of the Olympic village is to mix and mingle -- to foster person-to-person interaction because that is what breaks down barriers.

The entire point is not to isolate the Russians, or anyone. It's to bring the Russians together with the rest of everybody else who wants to -- or can -- be there from around the whole wide world. 

Looking toward PyeongChang — let’s be logical.

Doesn’t it stand to reason that those implicated in the Sochi 2014 matter will be out, anyway? And that those Russian athletes since will have been tested up, down, sideways and every which way — making them (if you want to believe in the testing system) the cleanest Russians ever?

See you in PyeongChang, everyone. That means you, wheverever you are, and the Russians, too. The Olympics are about inclusion.