Punishing Russia’s athletes harsh but only fair solution

Time for Wada and IOC to face reality and play hard ball with those not playing fair

When officials from the New York City Marathon decided against inviting elite Russian runners to compete in the race last autumn, they didn’t explicitly say that the cloud of doping over Russia and its athletes was the reason. They didn’t have to. It was obvious.

Accusations of Russian doping and reported claims of systematic distribution of performance-enhancing drugs and of bribes paid to cover up positive tests would be enough to scare off officials of any event worried about safeguarding its credibility.

So you have to wonder what officials from the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) and the International Olympic Committee are thinking now, in light of the revelations on Thursday that detailed a stunningly complex Russian doping scheme at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

A phantom lab created to process the urine of athletes who had doped. Anti-doping scientists who passed samples through a hole in the laboratory’s wall so they could be replaced with drug-free urine. Years of planning for a surreptitious operation that made at least 100 dirty samples disappear, according to the former lab director, and allowed at least 15 Olympic medallists to get away with cheating.


If that isn’t enough reason to deem Russian athletes a risk to the credibility of the Olympics, and reason enough to bar them from competing in this summer’s Rio Games, I don’t know what is. In fact, there are enough red flags that Olympic officials should consider barring the Russians from the 2018 Winter Games, too.

A harsh punishment? Yes. Embarrassing? Surely. But that punishment is proper, and overdue, considering that Russia and some of its athletes have benefited from a state-sponsored doping system that rivals – perhaps even surpasses – those run by Eastern Bloc nations in the 1970s.

Fair fight

It will take time to clean up Russian sports, and that can’t happen in weeks. Or months. Or maybe even years. In the meantime, clean athletes – and, yes, I still believe they exist – shouldn’t have to line up against Russians and wonder, is this a fair fight?

To be clear: Thursday's revelations didn't emerge from nowhere. Steven Holcomb, an American bobsledder who won two bronze medals in Sochi and has dedicated 18 of his 36 years to his bobsledding career, said some Russian athletes had told him that doping should be permissible except on competition days.

Indeed, Russia's doping problem has been an open secret for years. Last autumn, an independent investigation run by the former Wada president Dick Pound revealed that Russia's track and field programme was rife with corruption and doping cover-ups. It was enough for that programme to be suspended from international competition until it proves that it can follow the rules.

A new scandal early this year involving the widespread use of a banned drug, meldonium, by Russian athletes made it seem as if Russia had no interest in fixing things.

Unfortunately, Wada and the IOC have a record of going soft when dealing with Russia.

While the secret lab was expunging dirty samples in Sochi, Wada's president, Craig Reedie, was praising Russia's anti-doping effort. "I always tried to be a glass-half-full man," Reedie said.

Deeper investigation

Half-full, even when athletes wrote to him in recent months demanding deeper investigation of Russian sports beyond track and field.

Beckie Scott

, an Olympic gold medallist in crosscountry skiing and the chairwoman of Wada’s athletes’ advisory council, said on Thursday she and other athletes were frustrated by the continuing inaction of the bodies empowered to do something to stop Russian doping.

Scott said. “If there was a collective effort of engagement by the IOC and Wada, and really serious intention by both organisations, things would be different now.”

Like Holcomb, Scott favours barring Russia from the Olympics because, she said: “without actual action like that, how can you be taken seriously?”

She’s right. Russia has gone rogue. No more proof is needed. It’s gone to incredible lengths to support (and to hide) its doping programme, and there’s no telling what it will do – or, given the unexpected deaths of two high-ranking Russian anti-doping officials within two weeks of each other, what it won’t do – to make this all go away.

But the time for Wada and the IOC to play nice with Russia is over, too.Olympic organisers can’t look the other way anymore. The very least the IOC’s members can do is address the one right in front of its face, taunting them. New York Times Service