The Impact of Russian Doping on Rio and Beyond

This was originally posted in 2016 by Barley. As Russian athletes are competing as unaffiliated athletes at this year’s Winter Olympics under the Olympic flag, we found reflecting on this post from the Rio Olympics particularly timely and relevant to #cheaterweek.

Doping scandals are nothing new, but the news that an entire country’s program condoned and systematically concealed doping among its athletes, we’ve entered a whole new era. While some deem the International Athletic Association Federation’s ban on Russia as a big step towards a clean sport, I can’t help wondering, is it a band-aid on a bullet hole? Are we finally on the verge of fixing this problem or are we on the verge of pretending to fix this problem? Far from feeling like the doping problem is solved, I’m left with more questions.

What about the other doping athletes we know are out there that still are likely to compete? While we’re all staring at the mess that is currently the Russian track and field team, are officials sweeping other problems under the rug, hoping we are too distracted to notice? And what about clean Russians, if there are any, getting caught in the crossfire? Where do we go from here to clean up the sport of running?

The Olympics are about bringing the world together in sport, so is it fair to single out one country when we know that doping is far more widespread than Russia? Other countries have suspended athletes and even more are under investigation. Not to mention, IAAF is allowing athletes to compete who have proven track records of lying, cheating and taking things they didn’t earn (medals, records, money, moments of glory) that will likely never be given to those who rightfully earned them. Hell, even Team USA headed to Rio with proven dopers in tow.

But maybe Russia’s ban really was a giant step towards a clean sport. Since the IAAF came down on Russia, individual athletes, as well as coaches and managers associated with doping have been taken down or at least threatened, which could put more fear in those considering cheating. But will it be enough? Can the Olympics ever be one hundred percent clean? I personally don’t think the all-or-nothing approach of banning the entire team is the right move, but making an exception and allowing whistle-blowers like Yulia Stepanova to compete doesn’t sit right with me either. She’s a convicted doper herself (she served a two year ban beginning in 2013), and outed Russian doping to conveniently put herself in the exact position she is now, able to compete when the rest of the runners from her country cannot.

The Black, White, and Grey of the Matter

Too much subjectivity in rules is problematic too. In Canada, a country that uses a completely subjective system for choosing its Olympic team, a clean athlete like Lanni Marchant, who met two Olympic standards, had to wait on pins and needles and hope the governing bodies would allow her to compete (she competed in the 10,000 and marathon).

While the U.S. trials method of choosing its Olympic team is much more clean cut, this still doesn’t mean the good guys win, when, for example, a powerful corporate sponsor might try and prevent a clean athlete from succeeding, while at the same time supporting others who cheat. The World Anti-Doping Agency has clear rules that ban athletes who are caught doping, but rules aren’t useful when not enforced with any consistency or when dopers, even those who have been previously caught, seem to be completely undeterred by them.

All of this only tells me that there is no perfect system. There is no one thing the IAAF or IOC can do to really solve the doping problem. Clear rules don’t allow for necessary exceptions, but when standards are too grey, dopers will slip through the gaping loopholes.

The Russia bust, at the very least, changed the tone for Olympic track and field events before we even reached opening ceremonies.

Two years ago, we asked “Is banning Russia really a step forward, or just a band-aid? Do you think any Russian track and field athletes should be allowed to compete in the Olympics?”

Did we make progress?

Given the current state of Russian athletics, what do you think was the impact of banning Russia in 2016?  Have we made any steps forward?

Sal is a 4 year old 77 hour trail marathoner looking to whittle a few minutes off next time. Being a gastropod, Sal is neither male nor female but will accept either set of pronouns. Sal's spirit animal is the cheetah and Sal's mantra is, "What's slow to some is fast for others." Sal writes about Salty Running news.

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