Russia and Doping: Why? And what is the future for sport?

The Russian doping scandal has asked many questions. The reasons why systematic doping took place and the future are just two of these.

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Banned? Russian doping is destroying athletics
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Luke J. Harris
On 25 July 2016 14:42

The evidence is damning; with over 300 positive samples from Russian athletes going ‘missing’ is crippling for sport, for which the only punishment can be a total ban of Russia competing at the 2016 Olympics. Elite sport needs such a punishment for its own creditability.

Sport has been engulfed with drugs scandals during the past twenty years and this is perhaps the biggest of them all. For it to be swept under the carpet or not properly dealt with would cripple the Olympic Games and elite sports legitimacy. For other athletes, television, sponsors, organising bodies and most importantly the general public, Russia needs to be harshly punished for what it has done.

Banning all of Russia’s athletes is harsh. There are undoubtedly many Russian athletes who are innocent; have never taken performance enhancing drugs or attempted to cheat. For some it will be the only chance in their lives to compete at the Olympics, losing this will be heartbreaking and shattering. Any athlete who missed the 1980 or 1984 Olympics because of politically enforced bans will testify to that.

There are wider issues and other questions that need to be asked about this scandal, such as; Why did it take place in the first place? And what is the future for Russia and for elite sport?

George Orwell described football as ‘war minus the shooting’, and this can certainly be applied to the background to this scandal and so many episodes in Olympic history, of which ‘blood on the water’ (1956) and ‘miracle on ice’ (1980) are prime examples. This is a time of tension between Putin’s Russia and the West, success over them and particularly over the United States appears to be one motivating factor. The need to win for more general national pride also appears to be a prime reason for this state sponsored drug taking and cover up.

The way that Russia has attempted to improve their national status through winning at the Olympics is certainly not a first. In the 1970’s and 1980’s East Germany did exactly the same, demonstrated by the fact their female 4 x 100 metre relay team’s world record stood for nearly 28 years (before it was broken at the 2012 Olympics) and came off the back of widespread drug taking within East German sport. The Soviet Union had its own practices in place.

China’s rise as an Olympic superpower in the 21st century has come through huge state funding, with the desire to use sport to put the country upon not only the sporting, but also political map. Even Great Britain are responsible for this, with the national lottery funding came after the progressive decline of British athletic performances at the Olympics, coming shortly after it had just won one gold medal at the 1996 Games.

Britain’s desire to improve was evidence of the need to be successful coming full circle. Britain at least in its own view, had historically been a successful sporting nation and coming 36th on the medals table in 1996 just wasn’t good enough.

Russia’s desire to be successful have taken things to a new level. But where does this end?

Hopefully this is the end, ultimately it won’t be. The desire to win and not just take part is too strong, there’s too much money and national pride at stake. All of the 200 odd nations who compete at every Olympics should all want to win and should do everything they can, within morals and law. Some will cheat to do this. A radical step might be to de-nationalise the Olympics.

Maybe there shouldn’t be national Olympic associations entering athletes, no entering under the national flag or medals tables. Before the 1908 Olympics athletes simply entered themselves, perhaps individual sporting bodies or the athletes themselves based upon performance should be responsible. This seems to be impractical and ultimately not wanted. It is the national struggle of the Olympics that makes it such theatre.

Yet again the International Olympic Committee and individual sporting bodies need to take a long look at themselves. Russia must be made an example of. There needs to be more done to ensure greater transparency for drugs testing to help the World Anti-Doping authority, which has done so much to clean up so many sports from the cheats.

What is the future for Russia? Their reputation within international sport is in tatters. It will recover; Russia has power within international sport and beyond, its athletes will be readmitted, sooner rather than later. Those selling sport want to see the best competing, whatever their nationality, sport is money, athletes missing damages sponsors and sales to not just the Russian market, but also globally.

A major part of Russia’s desire to improve its performance came from a desire to succeed when it hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics. One of the few sporting events bigger than these Games is the Football World Cup and Russia will host this in 2018. Whether Russia should be hosting at all after it has been proven its victory was not legitimate is another story, but yet again it demonstrates Russia’s desire to be a successful sporting nation. At this event, its team will ultimately be unsuccessful.

Its dismal display at the 2016 European Championships, with losses to Slovakia and Wales and a draw versus tournament strugglers England doesn’t point to a team which will win the World Cup. Home advantage has been proven to help teams, but against the flair of Brazil, talent of Germany and the teamwork of sides such as Wales mean’s that an early exit is likely. Considering the Russian success based upon drug taking, perhaps a poor performance will help its sporting reputation and potentially show them as not being cheats.

Whatever the outcome of the IOC’s meetings, the Rio Olympics will take place under a partial ‘black cloud’. Russian athletes, when they do begin to compete again will all be under suspicion and suffer. Elite sport has yet again been severely damaged. It can of course shake this off; this is just one country doing such systematic cheating. Of course there may be others.

Rio days and nights will be lit up with outstanding performances from clean athletes. There will be more questions asked, but the global love of sport will carry it through this scandal, and those which will undoubtedly follow in the future.

Luke J Harris’s book ‘Britain and the Olympic Games, 1908-1920’ is the International Society of Olympic Historians 2015 winner of its award for the outstanding book on the Olympic movement. 

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