There’s a new series on the Olympic Channel called “Foul Play,” though unfortunately it doesn’t address what is really foul about the modern Olympic movement.
For that, there’s no reason to look to the past. There’s plenty of foul play on display as the countdown begins to the Winter Olympics in February in South Korea.
Just this week the International Olympic Committee suspended Namibia’s Frank Fredericks as a member after he was charged in a French investigation of suspected bribery in the 2016 Olympic host city vote. The former Olympian allegedly accepted a $300,000 payment eight years ago on the day Rio de Janeiro was chosen as the host.
No surprise there, because the Olympic city selections have long been an exercise in corruption and vote buying. Not just for Rio, but for Salt Lake City in 2002 and assorted Olympics before and in between.
But what’s really foul is the way Olympic officials have responded to the state sponsored doping scheme that Russia employed to top the medal standings four years ago in Sochi.
On Thursday, four Russian cross-country skiers were found guilty by an IOC commission of doping in Sochi, including silver medalist Maxim Vylegzhanin. That brought to six the number of Russian athletes disqualified by the IOC, with at least 20 cases remaining to be judged.
That the IOC is finally dealing out some punishment is commendable, at least in some fashion. The Sochi Olympics will forever be tainted by a Russian scheme to switch out urine samples, and for other doping schemes run in the years before the 2014 Games.
Not so commendable is how the IOC is dealing with the Russians themselves.
Less than 100 days before the Games begin in Pyeongchang, there has still been no decision on what to do with the Russian team scheduled to attend. Olympic officials are expected to consider some sort of punishment when the IOC executive board meets on Dec. 5, though any sanctions are expected to fall well short of the outright Russian ban sought by a number of doping watchdogs, including the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
If it seems familiar, it is. The same kind of situation that played out before the Olympics last year in Rio, where officials left it up to the individual sports federations to determine whether Russian athletes were eligible to compete.
The truth is, Russia should have been banned then, and it should be banned now.
The country still refuses to turn over stored urine samples from a Moscow laboratory, as demanded by anti-doping authorities. It still refuses to accept the findings of a World Anti-Doping Agency investigation led by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren, who found that 1,000 Russian athletes in 30 sports would have been involved in doping cover-ups from 2011 to 2015.
There’s no way to really know if Russian athletes will compete clean and on a level playing field in South Korea. Indeed, there’s every reason to suspect just the opposite as Russia tries to replicate its place on top of the medal standings in the upcoming Games.
Any other country, it’s an easy call. But IOC leader Thomas Bach seems determined not to antagonize Russia too much, despite its documented misdeeds. This is a country, after all, that spent untold billions on behalf of the IOC to present the Sochi Olympics to the world.
Russian President Vladimir Putin — who was the face of the Sochi Olympics — suggested Thursday that the recent doping allegations could be part of an American attempt to interfere in next year’s Russian presidential election. Putin said the dependency of the Olympic movement on U.S. television money has created “relationships and dependencies” between international sports organizations that unfairly target Russia.
That’s absurd, of course. Though U.S. TV money does wield outsized influence, McLaren’s report provides damning evidence — and plenty of it — that Russia systematically engaged in a doping scheme to help its athletes win medals and cover up their doping at the same time.
Despite that, the Russians will almost surely be in Pyeongchang.
And every athlete competing against them will have to wonder just how level the playing field in this Olympics will be.