Russia is banned

Olympic Rings are seen in front of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) headquarters on December 5, 2017 in Pully near Lausanne. — AFP

There is good and bad in the International Olympic Committee’s decision this week to ban Russian athletes from the 2018 Winter Olympics in Seoul. The good is obvious. There really has to be an end to cheating in all sports, since it is clear that the use of performance-enhancing drugs and methods such as blood transfusions are far from confined to field and track athletics.

During the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, it is clear that there was organized cheating, which included the manipulation and substitution of drugs testing samples. Ten Russian athletes who won medals then are among a group of 22 who are currently appealing their lifetime bans from international competition in their sports. What remains unclear is who was responsible for the Russian cheating.

In the end, even if, as the Russian government protests, there was no official collusion in the cheating, the authorities in Moscow are still guilty of failing to spot what was going on under their noses. Russia and the United States are both extremely capable of investigating such alleged wrongdoing. And both countries, as subscribers to the Olympic ethic of sporting excellence achieved through hard training and outstanding talent, must see that the offense of cheating goes far beyond national pride and the defensive responses that it so often produces.

If any sportsman or woman is allowed to enhance their performance artificially, then their sport, whatever it may be, is turned into a chemistry and medical contest that bears no relation to the real athletic competition. The athletes become mere vehicles for the products of the laboratory. Their health will doubtless be endangered by the artificial excellence they are given. Indeed, they might just as well be robots. In this respect, the IOC’s ban on the Russian Winter Olympics athletes is, therefore, welcome.

But the bad is that the Russians can argue, with some justification, that there was international politicking mixed up with the IOC decision. As Washington and Moscow continue to square up over a growing number of issues, the Kremlin will argue that this ban was simply another international sanction sponsored by the United States. It would have been good if the Trump White House had found a form of words that regretted the Russian ban but looked forward to the participation of their drug-free athletes in future sporting contests. However, given the hue and cry over Trump campaign links with Russia, such a statement might have been a hostage to fortune, even for this most incautious of presidents.

The IOC also made an interesting decision. It will allow Russian athletes to compete in South Korea if they are proven to be drug-free. But they will be participating as “neutrals”. It is as yet unclear to what extent these winter athletes’ trainers and support teams will be regarded as “Russian” or “neutral”. It would seem certain that those Russians who are allowed to take part would have to be funded by the Russian athletics’ authorities.

It is a messy compromise, but then that is generally the nature of compromises. However, what the IOC has not compromised on is the basic principle that drugs have no part in sports. There is a lesson to be learnt here by every country. Honesty and integrity are the cornerstones of international competition and cannot be sacrificed for fake sporting glory.