'Unity in diversity,' and other wintry musings

For the last month, it has been all Winter Olympics in South Korea. Now, amid a blowing snowstorm in Birmingham, England, the world indoor track and field championships are on. All this cold, wind and snow — there’s time to think about this and that:

1. Of course the Russian Olympic Committee was reinstated just days after the close of the PyeongChang Games. 

To reiterate a point made in this space frequently, sports doping is bad. But sports doping is not the measure of all things. Also, sports doping happens in every country. 

It is way more important to the International Olympic Committee, and has been since the days when Juan Antonio Samaranch was president, to keep the so-called Olympic family together. This proposition is key. Indeed, when he was running for the office, the current president, Thomas Bach, made it his motto: “Unity in diversity.” 

'Authorized Neutral Athlete' Mariya Lasitskene after winning Thursday's women's high jump aat the world indoor track and field championships // Stephen Pond/Getty Images for IAAF

'Authorized Neutral Athlete' Mariya Lasitskene after winning Thursday's women's high jump aat the world indoor track and field championships // Stephen Pond/Getty Images for IAAF

2. All of you who are braying for major changes to the anti-doping system: it is going to take way, way, way more money than is in the system now. Like hundreds of millions of dollars more. There is no indication, none, such funds are forthcoming now or anytime soon. Or ever.

There are two key stakeholders in the anti-doping world: the sports movement and governments. In every country except the United States, Olympic sport is federalized, so to pretend that governments aren’t going to be a meaningful part of any solution is naive to the extreme — that is, that the IOC ought to just solve this problem alone by throwing some chunk of its billions in broadcast revenues at it. The sports movement means the Olympic world, which means essentially the IOC and the World Anti-Doping Agency. The IOC can put up more money, and actually has. But every time it asks for more money from governments — or when WADA makes such a request — it more or less gets met with crickets. 

Why is this? Because governments have far more pressing issues on the agenda than sports doping. That is reality. And that is hugely unlikely to change. Proof: what government, amid this Russian issue, anted up millions to make a difference? Crickets, people.

3. I keep hearing about the "protection" of “clean” athletes. 

This would seem to be one of the emptiest bits of sloganeering in recent memory. What does “clean” mean? 

If I rounded up a group of 100 athletes, randomly selected from around the world, how many of those 100 would be guaranteed to be “clean”? 

4. The resignation of Scott Blackmun as chief executive of the United States Olympic Committee means the Americans have lost one of their most respected voices in the international movement.

It’s far from inconceivable that Larry Probst, the USOC board chair and a respected IOC member, could also be gone in the coming weeks or months amid the fallout from the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal. 

Probst and Blackmun have spent the past eight years building back up American influence within the international Olympic scene. It’s one thing for activists to tweet out bold pronouncements or to seek to advance agendas in the press. But the way to effect change in the Olympic movement, and especially for Americans, who start off with the disadvantage of not being European in a European environment, is through relationships constructed over time, the way Probst and Blackmun did it. If Probst goes, too, the United States is looking at a significantly — emphasis, significantly — weakened ability to get things done, and perhaps for many years to come.

5. In this context, it is worth taking a hard look at the announcement by the U.S. biathlon team that it intends to boycott next month’s world championships in Tyumen, Russia, citing doping and security concerns. These next sentences are written with great respect for the U.S. athletes, some of whom I have known for years, and for Max Cobb, who oversees the American biathlon program. We disagree here. This is a policy disagreement. It’s not personal. 

It’s unclear what specifically articulated security threats, if any, are at issue. It’s also unclear how a boycott is going to advance any agenda. A boycott hurts the athletes who are boycotting, and that’s it. Cobb is IBU vice president for sport, perhaps positioned to move up even higher in the federation; it’s uncertain how this boycott can help him there, and to be blunt there are precious few Americans in senior positions in international sports. Big picture, in this age of widely and wildly caricatured perceptions of the United States, of Trump and America-first, there is a keen risk of any U.S. action such as this coming off as sanctimonious lecturing from people in glass houses — not the biathlon team itself but athletes from the very same country that brought the world Lance Armstrong, Floyd Landis, Marion Jones and more. 

The general public will quickly forget this boycott. The Olympic world will not. The Russians for sure will not. The Russians remain very important players in the Olympic scene.

6. While we wait for the forthcoming Court of Arbitration for Sport decision dissecting in detail the cross-examination of Grigory Rodchenkov, the former director of the Moscow lab, let’s take this in:

Rodchenkov would only make himself available to CAS via Skype (or something similar). Yet he agreed to a one-on-one in-person interview, which aired during the Winter Games, with the BBC.

Query: is Rodchenkov more interested in the “truth,” or in advancing his own public relations strategy?

7. Whoever replaces Blackmun as USOC chief executive, it is imperative that his successor comes with an understanding of how the Olympic world works. 

The Stephanie Streeter show in 2009 makes plain that it is a non-starter to bring in someone from the outside who does not understand the distinct culture in and around not only the U.S. but the international Olympic scene. 

Same for the Lloyd Ward experiment in 2002.

8. It is 100 percent clear the IOC wants to go to Europe for the 2026 Winter Games. 

Sion, Switzerland, would seem unlikely to survive a referendum. The issue in Stockholm, Sweden, is that the ski events would be 400 miles away in Are. Voters in Austria have already made clear they’re not thrilled; good luck to Graz and Schladming in trying to finesse that end-around.

Wouldn’t it make sense to reach out to, you know — Milan?

9. The IOC announced it intends to hold its 2022 edition of the Youth Olympic Games in Africa. 

Now it’s clear what YOG has in this regard become: a consolation prize. The idea that Africa would be ready for the big Games is absurd, especially after the financial and logistical complexities and the massive corruption that is among the legacies of Rio 2016, the first Summer Games in a “new” continent.

Further, it’s elemental that the IOC would prefer to go to South Africa but the talk is now Senegal, which means the authorities in South Africa have already said no thanks. Senegal? Does anyone at the IOC understand optics? Senegal? Papa Diack? When the French authorities are involving a huge corruption scandal — keyed to the Diack family — that may yet be connected to the awarding of the Rio and Tokyo 2020 Games? Senegal? Hello?

10. The Russians remain on the outs in track and field: 'Authorized Neutral Athletes' only. No full reinstatement there. Even so, there were no boos Thursday night at Arena Birmingham at those 2018 world indoors for the two neutral Russian high jumpers who won gold, Mariya Lasitskene and Danil Lysenko. 

So now we know that the British audience, gaslighted by the nation’s press, is really not worked up about doping in sports, only about the American sprinter Justin Gatlin personally. 

Which leads to the obvious, and troubling, question: how much of the animus here in Britain directed at Gatlin is old-fashioned, ugly racism?