Russian sport on trial



RUSSIAN athletics has been humiliated by the doping scandal which has seen many of its competitors banned from the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio and the Winter Games in South Korea last February. Two years ago, after the Rio Games, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) reported that as many as a thousand Russian athletes had cheated, among other ways, by taking performance enhancing drugs and having blood transfusions. WADA accused the sporting authorities in Moscow of being involved in this cheating, with the alteration or plain deliberate loss of samples taken from the country’s athletes during the Sochi Games.

Russia has form on cheating in sport. The-then Soviet Union and its Communist allies in the Eastern Bloc saw sporting victories as a way of enhancing the prestige for their political system. There were thus, for instance, triumphant female shot putters, so apparently full of male hormones that they resembled men — one even had the beginnings of a mustache.

Such fraudulent behavior poses a critical danger to any sport, where honest athletes train during almost every waking hour, in order to be at their physical and mental peak for major international competitions. But Russia and its former Communist allies have never been alone in cheating. Cycling, with its almost unbelievable calls upon the strength and sheer guts of its competitors, has been threatened by a series of scandals in which teams, including the doctors working with them, have been involved in breaking the rules and trying to cover up what they have done from testing authorities. The most heart-breaking example of this cheating was the all-conquering American cyclist Lance Armstrong. When he was unmasked and shown to have feet of clay, this former icon of amateur road racers around the world, made the astonishing claim that all professional cyclists cheated regularly. It could be argued this exciting sport has yet to shed the suspicion that it is still shot through with doping. Even snooker has had its scandals with players found to have been taking beta-blockers to slow their heart so they could strike the cue ball more accurately.

While there can be no doubt that Russian athletes cheated and there was some degree of collusion among Russian sports’ officials, the Kremlin has taken the line that the scandal is being exploited in the West, as just another attempt to cast Russia as an international villain. Until Wednesday, when WADA officials finally gained access to the Moscow’s own anti-doping authority, Russian officials have been obstructive in a classic Soviet-style operation, designed as much as anything, to frustrate and annoy not just WADA but the US and European governments backing it.

It remains to be seen what, if anything, the WADA visit finds out. It would be good to think that this is finally full cooperation, ordered by the Kremlin, which will accept and remedy any discovery of wrong-doing. The truth is that sport ought to be above politics. International leaders can thunder about their differences but the international fields of sport should always be about prowess, honestly-gained, in which interstate rivalries have no part. In the end, a handful of individuals who have devoted their lives to achieving their particular excellence, put themselves against the world’s other finest competitors. This is what makes all sport so captivating.