By Will Moulton
With just 137 days to go until the XXIII Winter Olympic Games, we should be looking forward to the return of athletes walking in skis, sweeping stones across an ice rink and hurtling headfirst down a track on a tea tray.
But unfortunately two very large, dark, worrying clouds currently loom over the South Korean county of Pyeongchang, situated in the northeastern Gangwon Province, threatening to taint what should be another magical fortnight.
The first consists of their noisy neighbours, with Kim Jong-un continuing his macho mission of trying to provoke the rest of the world into starting a war with North Korea.
The second concerns Russia and whether their athletes should be allowed to compete at the Games.
This is something we discussed at length on the most recent episode of SportSpiel but, if you missed it, I only need one word to answer that question. No.
As the saying goes, cheaters never prosper. Or at least they should not be allowed the chance to.Embed from Getty Images
Russia were proven to have taken part in systematic, state-sponsored doping and now they have to pay the price for it. The fact that they have not yet been given a blanket ban across all sports known to have been a part of it is astounding.
It is not like plenty of important people have not asked for it. Following their own independent report published in late 2015, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) called for all Russians to be barred from Rio 2016. Athletes, pundits, politicians, fans alike have pleaded for it. Most recently, 17 national anti-doping organisations (NADOs) demanded it for Pyeongchang 2018.
The problem is that banning Russia could have huge consequences. As we all know, this is one of the most powerful nations in the world. Upsetting them in any format could have serious repercussions, not just on a sporting scale, but on a general one. This is a country not used to being told what to do.
Not that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) can admit this though. To come out and say they will not ban Russia because they fear them would be a major PR disaster. What’s more, it would imply that the world’s biggest country – and many others – can do what they like without fear of punishment.
But to cite a lack of evidence behind their unwillingness to set a blanket ban is ridiculous. The McLaren Report, published in December 2016, was incredibly damning. It found that more than 1000 athletes benefitted from doping across 30 sports, including medallists from London 2012 and Sochi 2014. It even included a detailed analysis as to how they managed to hide their offences which, if you take morality out of the question, was incredibly impressive.
Furthermore the initial whistleblower – Grigory Rodchenkov, head of the testing lab where much of the cheating was conducted – stated that at least 15 medal winners had doped, including bobsledders and members of the cross-country ski team.
Yet former IOC vice-president John Coates had the temerity to come out and say they were still working ‘quickly’ to gather evidence before they decide what to do. Surely the McLaren Report is enough?
Clearly not though, as none of Russia’s medallists from their home Games have been stripped of their pieces of metal, while the New York Times reported that 95 out of 96 cases looking at athletes implicated in the scandal have closed due to a lack of evidence.
Yet, while it may be hard to convict individuals, surely there is enough proof to find the nation as a whole guilty? Everyone knows they did it. Well everyone aside from the Russians themselves, many of whom still deny it. Russian MP Dmitry Svishchev – also the head of their Curling Federation – called it “empty allegations” and said “If you are Russia, you’ll get accused of every single sin.”
Russia should be banned and it should be done now. As fans we just want to watch great sport without the constant nagging voice in the back of our head telling us that we are not seeing clean sport. Removing the Russians will not eliminate this, but it will certainly diminish it.
Furthermore, it will also give athletes who are clean the chance to prove it and compete under the Authorised Neutral Athletes (ANA) banner. Not every Russian is a cheat and those who are not deserve the chance to compete on the biggest stage of all. This is something they have worked all their lives for and they should not be punished because of others.
While they would prefer to compete for their country, if they really care enough they will be ok with competing with ANA status. But, due to the nature of the vigorous testing process they will have to undergo to prove they are clean, the ban has to be enforced now.
The IAAF imposed their suspension on track and field just weeks before Rio 2016 and it only gave one – long jumper Darya Klishina – time to prove her innocence. But before the recent World Championships in London they announced their ban well in advance, allowing 19 athletes the chance to clear their name and compete. And they did well, winning six medals between them – one gold and five silvers – proving the thing we all know: Russians are good at sport, they do not need drugs.
So, will we see Russia in Pyeongchang 2018? Whilst every man and his dog knows they are guilty, I rather fear we will see the tricolour flag making its way down the athletes’ parade during the opening ceremony. If there is not enough evidence to ban them now, there never will be. Perhaps this is the one time where cheaters will prosper.