Today, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Executive Board announced its decision on the participation of Russian athletes in the 2016 Olympic Games. The ruling essentially puts the onus of on the International Federations (IFs) for each sport to decide whether the Russian athletes will be eligible to compete in Rio. With just twelve days until the Opening Ceremonies on August 5th, it is a tremendous undertaking for the IFs.
IFs will be given the responsibility of reviewing the anti-doping records of each individual athlete in order to establish an even playing field. The IOC announced it supports Richard McLaren’s request to “continue and finalise his work.” McLaren authored the Independent Person report published by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) on Monday implicating the Russian government in a state-sponsored doping scandal.
Later in the teleconference, the IOC announced the decision that Yulia Stepanova, the whistleblower and Russian track-and-field athlete who appeared in a German documentary accusing the Russian sports system of large-scale doping fraud, will not be allowed to participate in Rio.
“While it is true that Mrs Stepanova’s testimony and public statements have made a contribution to the protection and promotion of clean athletes, fair play and the integrity and authenticity of sport, the Rules of the Olympic Charter related to the organisation of the Olympic Games run counter to the recognition of the status of neutral athlete. Furthermore, the sanction to which she was subject and the circumstances in which she denounced the doping practices which she had used herself, do not satisfy the ethical requirements for an athlete to enter the Olympic Games.”
“The IOC EB accepted the advice of the IOC Ethics Commission, also taking into consideration its above-mentioned decision not to allow any Russian athlete who has ever been sanctioned for doping to participate in the Olympic Games Rio 2016. Therefore, the IOC will not enter Mrs Stepanova as a competitor in the Olympic Games Rio 2016.”
Following the teleconference, I caught up with USA Today columnist Christine Brennan to discuss the decision, the likelihood of action by the International Federations and the implications for the brand of the Olympic Games.
DL: What did you think about the IOC’s decision? Why did the IOC ban the whistleblower?
CB: It’s extraordinary. You don’t ban the bad guys, but you ban the whistleblower. It’s a horrible statement, a horrible message that is being sent. Yulia Stepanova is a hero. Kicking her out is the absolute worst message to be sent; it is opposite of the Olympic ideal...whatever that is today. It is a sad day for clean sports and it’s shocking.
As you know, I thought they [the IOC] would cave to Putin and allow Russia to be in the Olympics. I never foresaw that they were going to take someone who was going to be in the Olympics and kick them out. It is a horrible message. Thomas Bach’s legacy is dead now. Occasionally, you hear people talk about ‘wimping out,’ which is a high school term. It’s a perfect term for this today; Thomas Bach wimped out. There is no other way to describe it than that and he has created an absolutely chaotic circus at the Olympic Games. If Rio wasn’t already a chaotic circus, it has become that now.
DL: You have covered the Olympics since 1984 and have seen how it has changed from an amateur festival to a professional sporting event. Where do you think the brand of the Olympics goes from here? Many would refer to today’s decision as a brand-defining moment. How will the brand of the Olympic Games be impacted?
CB: It is a great question. I think we will probably know the answer in twenty years. There are sports that have fallen due to performance-enhancing drugs. We’ve certainly seen cycling have real trouble. I know there are people out there who watch cycling, but I don’t know anyone who does.
And track and field [has also fallen in the public consciousness]. Track-and-field athletes used to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated several times a year, not just at the Olympics. You’d have Jim Ryun [on the cover] who won the Kansas relays in the ‘60s and the Millrose Games would have someone on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Track and field has certainly fallen in many people’s eyes as a result of the doping scandals there: Ben Johnson, the East Germans, the former Soviets, et cetera.
I think it is really uncertain how the Olympics will survive this. This question is: Are the Olympics too big to fail? I would say right now, yes, they are. Who knows how this will go. A more immediate concern is what happens in Rio. What happens when the Russians walk into the Opening Ceremonies under the Russian flag? Picture it twelve days from now when Russia walks in; will they be booed? What will it sound like when Russia comes in with the Russian flag?
In every event where a Russian wins a medal, we are all [the press] going to go to that fourth-place person and ask them what they think. Do they feel that they were cheated out of a medal? It will be a circus. Journalistically, I look forward to that because it is our role to continue to point out what’s going on and the problems and real questions about integrity. It is what we have to do and I will happily do that.
In any event where a Russian wins or is second or third, we’ll be asking them about their history and look it up. And we’ll also be talking to the fourth- and fifth-place finishers and ask them what they think. That is going to be crazy. It is really going to be fascinating.
DL: My sources have revealed that Skate Canada sent out an email to its skaters instructing them not to talk about the situation regarding Russia’s potential banning from the Olympic Games. Skating is a judged sport and there could be consequences for speaking out. With the individual sport federations deciding who gets to compete at the Olympic Games, do you have much faith that any of these governing bodies will take a hard line this close to the Olympic Games and ban any of the athletes who have been doping?
CB: The International Weightlifting Federation has been looking into this and they’ve been close to banning athletes. The International Tennis Federation has said that the Russian athletes will be allowed to compete. Tennis does do a lot of drug testing and does have Olympic-style testing at its Grand Slam events.
The problem is that it is asking a lot of these federations when the IOC was supposed to take care of this. The IOC totally punted and gave this to the federations. It is just one of the most egregious examples of lack of leadership that I have seen in sports in a long, long time. It’s that bad.