The IOC readmits Russia


The decision by the International Olympic Committee to restore Russia to full membership has produced murmurs of disquiet. There is no doubt that since at least the 2015 Sochi Winter Olympics, a significant number of Russian athletes were cheating and using performance enhancing-drugs. The Russian government has admitted there was wrongdoing.

What the Kremlin has always denied were allegations that this doping was state-sponsored.

IOC investigators had evidence that during the Winter Games in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, the FSB, successor to the state intelligence agency the KGB, was involved in the swapping of blood samples brought to official testing laboratories. For the Russian government to protest its innocence also meant that it was admitting that part of its intelligence organization had gone rogue. Either way the doping report that caused the IOC to ban hundreds of Russian athletes from the Rio Olympics had to be a major embarrassment to Vladimir Putin’s administration.

The ban was carried over to the Pyeongchang winter games in South Korea. The 168 Russian athletes who actually took part did so as neutrals. During the spectacular opening ceremony, they paraded in front of the Olympic, not the Russian, flag. The IOC had said that it intended to restore Russia to full competitive status provided there were no further doping test failures. In the event, two of the four positive dope samples in the Winter Games involved Russian athletes.

A female bobsleigh pilot and a male curler both failed initial tests, the latter bringing about the loss of the bronze medal he had just won. There was puzzlement that anyone involved in the sport of curling could benefit to any particular degree from a performance-enhancing drug. In this version of bowls on ice, a stone is sent sliding along toward its target with two team members furiously brushing and warming the ice ahead of it.

The IOC now says that these two tests later proved negative and, therefore, as it planned, Russian athletes are free to compete in future Olympics. The international reaction has been mixed. There is understandable concern among sportsmen who rely solely on their talents and vigorous training to achieve success. Cheating, from wherever it comes, destroys fair competition. But there has also been a political undercurrent to the campaign to exclude Russia from international competition. Relations between Washington and Russia are almost as cool as during the Cold War. Some American politicians seized on the well-organized doping scandal as wider proof that Moscow could no longer be trusted.

Politicizing the revelations was surely a mistake, even though in all international sports national prestige is generally in play. The IOC found itself under considerable outside pressure to punish and ban Russian sportsmen. Its readiness to reinstate Russia following the Rio and Pyeongchang games is evidence of its desire to push back against outside influences and assert its independence. At this delicate moment in international athletics this is surely a wise decision. The IOC is effectively saying that it trusts Russia to get its house in order and bring an end to further cheating with performance-boosting substances. Moscow is rightly pleased with this. However, the IOC’s move now imposes a crucial duty on Russian athletics to ensure that from now on, its sportsmen will be squeaky clean. It must be ruthless in banning any who cheat.