Choosing to be on the right side of history

The law of unintended consequences can be a horrible thing. Simply put, we don’t know what we don’t know.

If the Russians are kept out of the 2016 Olympics, what will be the import for sport? In politics? In global affairs? Don’t kid yourself. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, can be deadly serious about a lot of things.

To be clear, this is a watershed moment in Olympic history. That’s why the International Olympic Committee needs to be on the right side of that history, and see that the Russians get to the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.

The IOC president, Thomas Bach, at a meeting last month // IOC

There surely will be critics, loud and long.

But the right to be judged as an individual is central to everything the Olympic movement stands for.

At least in theory.

No question: Russia is a key player in the Olympic scene. Putin is arguably one of the three leading figures in international sport, along with International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach and, maybe, whoever is in charge of FIFA this week.

The Russians — unlike, for instance, the United States — have not only staged but helped to underwrite any number of significant recent events: the 2013 world track and field championships and Summer University Games, 2014 Winter Games and 2015 world swim championships. Not to mention any number of World Cups in any number of sports, winter and summer.

And, of course, they are due to stage the 2018 soccer World Cup.

Ordinarily, doping matters do not occasion news releases from the head of state, no matter where. Here, though, was Putin earlier this week, in a Kremlin statement, referring to the boycotts of the 1980 and 1984 Games:

“In short, people had their dreams broken and became hostages of political confrontation. The Olympic movement found itself in a serious crisis and faced divisions within. Later, some of the political figures of that era on both sides admitted that this had been a mistake.

“Today, we see a dangerous return to this policy of letting politics interfere with sport. Yes, this intervention takes different forms today, but the essence remains the same; to make sport an instrument for geopolitical pressure and use it to form a negative image of countries and peoples. The Olympic movement, which is a tremendous force for uniting humanity, once again could find itself on the brink of division.”

What happens if doping allegations keep the Russians out of Rio? No one knows.

Not much taken with the Russians? Just wait until the only places left to bid for major events are the Gulf States and, oh, Azerbaijan.

One thing we do know: the Russian matter has exposed the complete and utter hypocrisy from those who would ban athletes from an entire state without proven, reasoned, calm justification.

We know this, too, about Thursday’s decision by the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport: it is not, repeat not, the case that the Russians, even those on the track and field team, are absolutely out of Rio. The door is for sure open, as a close reading of the CAS matter makes plain.

This, too: the door is still open for Russians in other sports to take part in the Games, which begin Aug. 5, just two weeks away. Indeed, swimming’s international governing body, FINA, on Thursday put out a release saying it was “pleased” to “reveal” the “final entry list” for synchronized swimming at the 2016 Olympics. There on the list of eight teams, between Japan and Ukraine: Russia.

What we do not know is what the IOC, its policy-making executive board due to meet Sunday, is going to do in the aftermath of the CAS ruling, and amid extraordinary scrutiny.

At issue are arguments on both sides.

But the more compelling argument is in favor of the Russians.

That may be a super-unpopular position —especially in the west, and in particular the United States, Canada and Great Britain, where the mainstream media has largely been riding a nouveau Cold War-style rush to judgment.

But it’s true.

And for that core reason:

The Olympics are about fair play.

Everyone — repeat, everyone — deserves to be judged individually. That is the essence of fairness.

On Thursday, for instance, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency announced that Nataliya Lehonkova, 33, a track and field athlete from Ukraine, had tested positive in February for meldonium after taking it last August and November — but would not face sanction based on guidelines issued June 30 by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

She got judged individually.

Last week, USADA announced it was not going to levy sanction in the matter of an 18-year-old American gymnast, Kristen Shaldybin, of Highwood, Illinois, who tested positive June 7 for a prohibited diuretic. Why? Because it was in tap water that ran through the municipal water supply.

She got judged individually.

Remember, as Sting said, if in a very different context, the Russians love their children, too. The Russians are human beings. Just like you and me. That essential dignity deserves not just to be recognized but honored. That is the Olympic ideal.

For those who believe that what’s at stake is the honor and integrity of the Olympic movement,  check.

The arguments in favor of a wholesale Russian ban go like this:

One, banning the Russians means being on the side of "clean" athletes.

No, it doesn't. The authorities can't prove that anyone is "clean" any more than they can prove that the 68 Russians are collectively dirty. Marion Jones passed hundreds of doping tests. So did Lance Armstrong. Moreover, there's a strong element of intent associated now with the anti-doping rules, and notions such as "choice" can be subject to varying interpretation in different parts of our world. Maybe even in Russia.

Two, the McLaren Report offers evidence of state-sponsored doping. If ever a state deserved to be sanctioned, it’s now and that state is Russia. Yes, there will be collateral damage — in particular the 68 athletes on the track and field team. Sorry, you 68, about that.

That’s not the way any reasonable, rational or logical system of law, ethics, morality or policy works.

At least one of which we can be proud.

And for many, many reasons.

To begin:

In what context, primarily, does the phrase “collateral damage” assume its most significant meaning? War, of course. The Olympics are about promoting peace.

In the 100 year-plus history of the modern Olympic movement, a state has been kept away (or the Games canceled) for only three reasons: war, apartheid and the subjugation of women. Who wants to make the case that doping — no matter how serious — rises to the station of war, or apartheid, or the diminishment of an entire class of human beings?

The evidence in the case against Russia is based on allegation. Again, the entire case against Russia right now is based on allegation only. Are those allegations extraordinarily suggestive? Yes. Are they more likely than not true? Could well be. But have they been tested in a formal setting, under oath, subject to cross-examination? Not at all. Without that — without due process and, especially, the crucible of cross-examination — it’s unfair in the extreme to proceed with broad sanction.

-- The pole vault champion Yelena Isinbayeva Thursday, after the CAS decision, decrying "pseudo-gold medals." The last sentence, before the emoji string, says, "Power is always feared." --

The Russians can and should be held to the most rigorous standard. But so should everyone.

If you think Russia is the only nation in the world where you could allege state-sponsored doping — call me immediately, because I have a beautiful bridge in Brooklyn I would be delighted to sell.

The United States is the only country in the world where Olympic sport is not an arm of a federal ministry. Just three years ago, Turkey suspended 40 track and field athletes for doping, 20 of whom were under age 23. Because there has been no formal inquiry like the McLaren Report into Turkey, Turkey is in the clear but Russia is under the gun? What if adequately funded investigators were sent into — pick any one — Kenya, Ethiopia, China or Jamaica?

To be clear: that the United States does not operate a ministry of sport hardly excuses American athletes and their record over the years. See, again, Armstrong and Jones. And others.

To which the immediate response is: yes, but the Russians are (allegedly) state-sponsored! OK. Take off those red, white and blue American goggles. Now put on the red, white and blue Russian ones. For years, the U.S. Postal Service, an independent arm of the United States government, underwrote the Armstrong team. Now draw a meaningful distinction — go ahead, still waiting — between what is alleged in Russia and what has been proven in the United States in regard to Armstrong’s massive doping conspiracy and cover-up.

Perspective matters. A lot. Like due process and cross-examination.

The CAS ruling Thursday was decided on what lawyers would call narrow grounds, reference to a section of Rule 22 issued by track and field’s worldwide governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations.

To be fair, international federations have to be able to approve and exert some degree of control over their member federations. No quarrel there.

But even in confirming that athletes whose national federations are suspended by the IAAF are ineligible for competitions held under IAAF rules, the CAS panel made plain the way out for the IOC — should it so choose.

Which, of course, it should.

First, the CAS panel explicitly noted that the IOC was not a party to the matter. Thus, the sport court said, it had “no jurisdiction” to decide whether the IOC could accept or decline Russian track and field athletes.

In practical terms, this amounts to blinking red lights and screaming sirens at a train crossing — it says, pay attention, because we just told you it’s OK to take the Russians even if we didn’t explicitly say so.

This is in line, and not coincidentally, with the position taken by the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations, which on Tuesday put out a statement that said, in part, “It is important to focus on the need for individual justice in all these cases and ASOIF endorses all IF decisions, including those that take into account collective responsibility of organizations under the IFs' governance.”

Next, the IAAF, recognizing that a wholesale ban could prove problematic, to say the least, sought June 17 to give the 68 Russians a path to Rio: prove a) “clearly and convincingly” that b) you were outside the country and c) subject to effective controls, then d) you could apply to compete but e) only as a “neutral” athlete.

So: not only did you have to be outside Russian jurisdiction, you also had to meet standards for being tested at a level comparable to your competition but without being told what those standards are. Who to look at? Who are your competitors? If you’re ranked 11th, who? Numbers 1, 2 and 3? Or numbers 8, 9 and 10? Someone else?

Let’s say we’re talking distance running. Now your competitors, for the sake of argument, might be Ethiopian and Kenyan. Hello?

What if you are a sprinter? The Jamaicans? The Americans? Jimmy Vicault, who is French?

What about any of that is fair?

Neutral athletes? What, Russians who “clearly and convincingly” could so prove are going to line up in Rio as a “neutral” nation, marching in the opening ceremony just in front of, say, Norway, their newly designed flag depicting a syringe with a big red X on it?

Would “Neutral” fans have to show up the stadium dressed only in gray?

Would those fans shout: “Go Neutral! Go Neutral!” Just like “U-S-A! U-S-A!” Or, “Aussie-Aussie-Aussie oi-oi-oi!”


So absurd that, in practice, only two of 68 Russians have been able to meet the IAAF conditions.

Accordingly, the CAS panel said it was “concerned” about the “immediate application with retroactive effect” of the IAAF’s June 17 policy, explaining: “Since such Rule invokes criteria based on long-term prior activity, it left no possibility in practice, and as applied, for the Claimant Athletes,” the Russians, “to be able to try to comply with them.”

Back to keeping-it-simple talk: “concerned” in legalese translates to “this is wrong, people.”

Essentially, it is super-unfair.

Which leads directly back to the central proposition:

The three core Olympic values are respect, excellence and friendship, all of which point toward fair play and the recognition that every single person in our broken world deserves to be accepted as an individual and, moreover, measured by his or her own conduct.

Anything less is a gross violation of the Olympic spirit, and on the wrong side of history.

And being on the wrong side, as history teaches, is very, very likely to provoke a whole host of unintended consequences.

The relay lights the way


ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Moscow Avenue runs for 10 kilometers. It starts at Victory Square, commemorating the sacrifices of World War II. The street sees the Russian National Library. It carries past the House of Soviets, a major command post during the 900-day siege; out front is a massive statue of Lenin. The boulevard runs over the Fontanka River and then, finally, ends at Sennaya Square. Ten kilometers is roughly six miles. It rained on and off Sunday, the day the Olympic flame relay -- as it is formally known -- came to St. Petersburg. It was cold enough that already winter coats and hats were out. Even so, Moscow Avenue -- in Russian, Moskovksky Prospekt -- was jammed, the street lined on both sides, people everywhere and anywhere, just to get a glimpse of the flame.

They were literally hanging out of second-story windows. They were queueing at gas stations. They came sprinting out of a car dealership. Kids, and there were hundreds upon hundreds of kids,  waved flags and danced and pointed excitedly to their parents and uncles and aunts and teachers and didn't mind the rain and posed for pictures. The children acted -- well, like kids everywhere.

It has been nearly 30 years since Sting suggested in song that the Russians must love their children, too. The relay offers powerful proof of what the Sochi 2014 Games, which this week ticked under 100 days away, mean to this enormous, incredible country -- and, at the same time, an invitation to the rest of the world to find out about Russia beyond the well-worn stereotypes.

The Olympic flame in St. Petersburg, Russia // photo courtesy Sochi 2014

This has always been the power of the relay.

It symbolizes the better urge in the Olympic movement, the powerful impulse toward excellence, friendship and respect that is, in fact, universal.

Kids everywhere know that.

They knew it on my street in Hermosa Beach, California, in 1996 when I took my daughter, who was then 2 years old, out to see the relay go by right our house on its way to Atlanta for the Summer Games and all the neighbor kids were screaming and yelling in excitement.

Just like they did Sunday in St. Petersburg, Russia.

For much of the rest of the world, the onset of the 2014 Winter Games has meant a rash of controversies: a vague new law purporting to ban homosexual "propaganda" to young people, $50 billion and counting in construction, worries over snow or no, concerns over terrorism, all of it overseen by the face of today's Russia, the president himself, Vladimir Putin.

That catalogue underscores a simple truth: the Russians have not done themselves many, if any, PR favors.

Fundamentally, however, the wonder -- after four visits to Russia in not even six months -- is how much of what gets spun up about this country is still rooted all these many years after the end of the Cold War in what can often seem like an enduring dread, if not outright fear, in many quarters of the press.

Of all the stories and all the broadcasts, how many are from reporters who have ever set even one foot in Russia?

Russia takes time and effort. In today's 24/7, what-have-you-got-for-me-now news-cycle, those are resources that can seem most difficult to justify.

Russia is not, in a word, easy. It's not easy to get to; travel visas have traditionally been complicated and expensive. Moreover, once here, the language barrier is often ferocious. Even the alphabet is different.

Sochi itself, way down by the Black Sea,  is hard to get to. Where do you want to transfer through? Moscow? Istanbul? Vienna?

Then there is Putin, who is typically viewed as The Action Man One Dares Not Cross -- for fear he is at all times carrying plutonium-laced sushi, or something, in his pocket. Or, if he is back to riding shirtless on a horse, in his boots. Who knows?

These absurd caricatures are completely at odds with the Putin that the French ski legend Jean-Claude Killy, the International Olympic Committee's primary liaison with Russia and the Sochi 2014 project, described in a recent story in the French weekly Journal du Dimanche.

"The Putin I know is not the one described in the newspapers, where you see real 'Putin-bashing,' " Killy told the paper.

Killy added, "I have no reason to follow the crowd; I trust what I see. When he calls me from Moscow at three in the morning his time to wish me a happy birthday, I find that nice."

It's not that there is an essential misunderstanding in the west of Putin or, more broadly, of Russia.

There seems to be almost no understanding.

This, then, is the opportunity the Sochi 2014 Games present -- if, and this is a big it, the Russians themselves understand it is at hand.

And -- if they care, and want to do something about it.

To be clear:

There is much to criticize about the Sochi project. And there remains the potential for terrorism or other catastrophe that could further re-shape forever the way the 2014 Games are seen or understood.

At the same time, the relay lights the way toward a new understanding, the possibility that -- over time -- things can change. This is the promise and potential of the Olympic movement in every country it touches.

That said, change takes time, especially fundamental change, and especially in a vast and complicated place like Russia.

Consider, for example, this exchange on Monday between Putin and the newly elected IOC president, Thomas Bach, at the Adler Railway Station, one of the infrastructure facilities built for the 2014 Games. Adler is the town immediately next to Sochi.

"Sochi and the entire region have come a long way in their development over these last years, and successfully, too," Bach said. "This makes a deep impression on us. The Olympic sites will contribute to making the Sochi Olympics unique in the movement's history, and the facilities will offer sportspeople the best possible conditions."

Putin, a moment or two later, said, "It seems to me that you liked the railway station, too?"

Bach: "I more than liked it, not just for its functionality, but for its architecture, too. It impresses me very much that you were able to build this railway station in just four years. Aside from the architecture and the unique solutions to link the old and new stations, I was also impressed by the way the facilities have been designed to allow people with disabilities to use them. I learned today, for example, that a special path has been laid in the terminal for the visually impaired. I think this is an optimistic sign for the future, a sign that shows how architecture and construction are developing in general in Russia.

"Of course, this new station will be used after the Olympics, too, and will become part of the Olympic heritage not just for Sochi but for the whole country."

Putin: "Yes, I wanted to say the same words. It will be an important part of the Olympics' legacy."

Is this revolutionary? No.

Is this important stuff? Yes, just like the handicap ramps that were built as a design feature into a nearby hockey arena, also a new idea in Russia.

A recycling program for water bottles -- a new idea.

Another new idea -- the volunteer program that will make the Games go in a country that previously had no volunteer culture.

On a Sunday morning in St. Petersburg, there they were by the dozens in their blue vests, 2014 volunteers, out in the rain, seeing the relay down Moscow Avenue and beyond, bringing the Olympic flame to a part of Russia nearly 1,450 miles away from Sochi. They made lifetime memories for literally thousands of people, and so many kids.

It was not even seven years ago, the summer of 2007, that Sochi was bidding for the 2014 Games. To have imagined such a scene then -- truly, it was unthinkable.