Sideline Cut: Chastened Russians will bide their time and still line up in Rio
Damning Wada report on systemic doping regime unlikey to have the desired effect
Russia’s Liliya Shobukhova: the marathon runner ran race after race untroubled by the fear of suspension despite showing blood values which were off the charts. Photograph: Sean Dempsey/PA
The soothing noises regarding Russia’s presence at next summer’s Olympic Games in Rio became even more soothing on Friday, with the International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach assuring members that Russia’s disgraced athletics programme was already taking significant steps towards rehabilitation.
Normal business resumes, then. In the 12 days since Wada released its independent report, effectively accusing Russian athletics of running a sophisticated and systemic doping regime, there has been the usual bout of admonishment and vows of contrition. The response from Russia has been at once contrite and defiant, depending on whom you want to listen to.
Vladimir Putin’s regal observation – “A sporting contest is only interesting when it’s honest” – added a much-needed dash of humour to what was a dismal week for international sport. But Valentin Maskalov, the vice-president of the Russian Athletic Federation said that Wada’s report amounted to a “fairy-tale”.
Russia is merely fulfilling a time-honoured role in Western eyes in all of this, with the accusations of sinister, state-sponsored organisation of an athletics programme as coldly predicated on cheating as were any of the notorious programmes during the decades of the Iron Curtain.
One of the constant figures within Russian athletics throughout that period was Valentin Balakhnichev, who resigned after the broadcast of Hajo Seppelt’s riveting documentary which clinically illustrated and documented the extent of Russia’s faith in its doping programme.
Balachknichev was an athlete in the Soviet Union of the 1970s and was a national coach of the 1980s; he grew up in the culture of a totalitarian regime. Seppelt’s investigation showed the pillars of obedience and fear are as prevalent as ever.
They were two minnows taking on a superpower. As Seppelt himself wondered aloud early in his documentary: “Am I dealing here with a couple of nut cases here or is it really serious?”
The discoveries he makes are at once stunning and unsurprising. Central to Seppelt’s documentary was the testimony of Lyliya Shobukhova, . Her athletic prowess made her wealthy and before the London Olympics in 2012, she was contacted by her own sporting body, the RAF, and was told of a potential problem and advised that money was required to make it go away. In all, Shobukhova paid €450,000 leaving a paper trail which leads to the inescapable conclusion of IAAF bribery. She bought her ticket to the Olympics: as it turned out, she was unable to complete.
Equally troubling was the fleeting remark by Valentin Krugliakov, a Russian 400 metres runner who recalled another athlete telling him, after he complained about having to serve a suspension to just keep quiet and accept it or “you might accidentally get into a car accident”.
The documentary and Wada’s door-stopper of a report have left the IAAF in crisis and, of course, serve to cast track and field sports in the same acrid light with which the world has viewed cycling in recent years. It advises that six other countries, including Argentina and Bolivia are on its non-complaint list along with Russia. The federations of France, Spain and Brazil are on its watch list.
Kenya, mean time, has over a dozen athletes serving suspension, a sufficiently healthy number to tarnish the vague international fantasy of the flatlands as a sort of paradise for middle- and long- distance athletes.
Seppelt’s documentary on the running culture in that country was just as bleak as his expose on Russian athletics. For hundreds of thousands of Kenyans, running is the fastest and often the only way out of poverty. Competition is fierce.
He traces the story of Geoffrey Tarno, a marathon runner whose earnings supported his entire village community and who died while at the age of 32 while running a race with three grand of prize money. All evidence suggests that he had been using EPO. The gulf between the modest white cross which marks Tarno’s grave in his back yard and the tumult of the starting line for the next Olympic marathon and Rio is vast. So is the task facing Sebastian Coe, president of the IAAF, to disprove the notion that athletics is in a state of ruination.
So what will come of Wada’s report?
The Russians can simply bide their time. There has been no threat of substance – a five year ban, say, excluding not just the Rio games but Tokyo in 2020 also.
There has been no threat from major sponsors or the television networks to pull out of the Olympics if countries investigated for doping are present. After the events in Paris last week, how much moral outrage can the world summon for the latest disgrace to visit the ancient sports?
Less and less.
Athletics has been reduced by the fact that virtually all fresh achievements now must be regarded with cynicism.
The most eye-opening result of the summer was, surely, the breathtaking run by Genzebe Dibaba in the 1,500 metres in Monaco. Her time of 3.50.7 broke the 22-year-old barrier set by Qu Yunxia of China, one of the athletes within Ma Junren’s infamous regime. The Ethiopian’s run left the field light years behind her as she pursued the wraith of Yunxia’s achievement. That is the positive story.
But then you read just the bare outline of her coach Jama Aden’s career and suddenly the skies seem less clear.
Perhaps the most relevant comments of the past week, after all the sermonising and despair, came from Russia’s sports minister Vitaly Mutko: “What will happen? Nothing will happen. Athletics will develop , the guys will train – well, maybe we will miss one tournament.”
Maybe he was merely acknowledging the way in which this fallen world works. As it stands, the Russians are in exile until the IAAF convenes in late March of next year in Wales for its first report. It may miss out on the World Indoor Athletics Championship in the USA on St Patrick’s Day. It is a punishment they will live with.
Already, the crisis for athletics has taken much of the gloss off the London Olympics. It leaves so many feats of athletic excellence open to the suspicion that so much of what the world applauded was as much of a fable as Danny Boyle’s opening ceremonial extravaganza.
But all of the indications are that when the next brightest stars of track and field converge in Rio the Russians will be among them. If they have to play pantomime villains for the world, so be it.
Seeing is believing and the medal table is the thing.