Does Russia enjoy being thought unreliable?

December 10, 2019

THERE will be those who feel some sympathy for Russian athletes who are now subject to a new ban by the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada), meaning that they will not be able to compete under their national colors at next year’s Tokyo Olympics nor at the 2022 football World Cup in Qatar.

However, it is not a blanket ban. Wada’s edict means that individual athletes who have not been caught up in the doping scandal that has besmirched Russian sport, will be able to compete, though a little absurdly, if they win, the Russian national anthem will not be played as they stand on the podium for the medal ceremony.

Bemoaning Wada’s latest sanction, Russian premier Dmitry Medvedev admitted that there were significant doping problems but insisted the ban was prompted by “chronic anti-Russian hysteria”. It was an empty protest. Wada gave the Russian athletics federation the opportunity to hand over their own anti-doping records for detailed examination. The files that were eventually surrendered proved to have been doctored and falsified. Indeed the changes that had been made to them were done so ineptly that one person close to Wada has mused that they almost seemed to signify contempt for the international drive to stamp out cheating throughout all sports.

There is absolutely no doubt that the authorities in charge of Russian athletics either signed off on or turned a blind eye to an almost institutionalized campaign to use performance enhancing drugs, combined with the wholesale falsification of the results of random mandatory tests on Russian athletes.

Premier Medvedev argued that though the problem was undeniable, Russia needed time to get to grips with it. This is arrant nonsense. The first Wada ban was imposed in 2015 after repeated warnings. There has been ample opportunity to purge Russian sport of its cheats, not simply among athletes but among coaches and officials who connived in what has turned out to be a nationwide conspiracy. It is hard to think of any other country, save perhaps North Korea, which when confronted with such a mass of incontrovertible evidence on doping and cheating, would not embark on a root and branch reform of their athletics.

Russia simply has not done this. It is worth wondering why, given what would appear to be the immense reputational damage that has been done. Most countries understandably take pride in the achievements of their sportsmen and their national teams. To be caught cheating brings of a general feeling of shame and frustration. But shame has been notably lacking from Moscow. Medvedev and other top officials may admit to large scale cheating but they do not seem to appreciate the cancerous nature of what has been done.

All sports are about excellence, achieved through immense dedication and endless training, designed to push human performance to ever greater levels. Any artificial method to enhance athletic achievement not only betrays the essence of sport, it also shows contempt for those competitors who rely on rigorous, almost fanatical practice to win their victories. Russia’s refusal to accept this suggests that for them, not simply in sport but also geopolitically, winning is all-important, whether it comes about through fair means or foul. Is the Kremlin perhaps quietly glorying in its reputation for being generally tricky and deeply unreliable?

December 10, 2019
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