Impact of Russian Doping on Rio and Beyond

Russian dopingDoping scandals are nothing new, but with 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?

What about the fact that banning an entire team could lead to that country not showing up in Rio? There have been grumblings out of Russia that Putin may pull the entire team over the ban of its track athletes, viewing it as an attack on all of Russia. 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 will be heading to Rio with proven dopers in tow.

Yulia Stepanova
Yulia Stepanova before accusations of doping marred her career

But maybe Russia’s ban really is 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 has met two Olympic standards, had to wait on pins and needles and hope the governing bodies would allow her to compete (she will be competing in the 10,000 and marathon).

While the U.S. trials method of choosing its Olympic team is much more black and white, that 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 black and white 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 black and white rules don’t allow for necessary exceptions, but when standards are too grey, dopers will slip through the gaping loopholes.

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

Where Things Stand with Russian Track and Field Athletes

Yelena Isinbayeva
Isinbayeva in 2009

After a summit on June 21, the IAAF recommended that the International Olympic Committee allow athletes to compete under the Olympic flag if they can prove they have taken a stance against systemic doping. Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee who backed the IAAF‘s Russia ban also expressed that some athletes may have a second chance for the Olympic games with this appeal process. It was widely assumed that those with the best chance of making it are athletes who train outside of Russia.

The IAAF recently recommended that the IOC allow only two Russian athletes to compete under the Olympic flag: whistle blower Yulia Stepanova, and Darya Klishina who lives and trains in the U.S.  at the IMG Academy in Florida. The IAAF denied the remainder of the appeals, including two-time Olympic and three-time World Champion pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, who reacted to the news by calling for the disbanding the entire IAAF.

Now that those appeals to the IAAF are over, 67 athletes plan on taking the ban to court with the president of the Russian Olympic Committee, Alexander Zhukov at the helm. Zhukov has been vocal about deeming the ban “legally indefensible” in court. The Court of Arbitration for Sport is set to hear the case on July 19, with a ruling hopefully only a few days later. It seems as though the Court has not published its criteria, leaving athletes and their agents to do some legwork to find out what, if anything, they can do to ensure a spot in Rio.

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? 

A new mom and Upstate, NY resident who loves the marathon, a good beer, and all of the numbers/nerdy things. I write about my journey to a sub-3:00 marathon, training tweaks for improvement, and finding that "running/life balance" unicorn. On tap Next: Maneuvering through motherhood and postpartum running!

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  1. Beyond all the negative doping causes in sports, there are some positive results: Data from the early era of anabolic steroid doping has been useful in identifying the sex-prefromance-differences in athletes, and fast they appear and how long they last.

  2. The whole story is so frustrating. I think a lot of people are kind of over hearing about doping in sports and just expect to have them now, which is really sad. As for me, I’m really interested in the story of Yulia Stepanova and would love to have been a fly on the wall when she and her husband decided to move to Germany…

  3. I’m enjoying the Russian hissy fits about it: Cheating is our patriotic duty! Anyone who doesn’t cheat with us is a traitor! What would the Olympics be with out former communist countries sending their doped-up athletebots to steal all the medals?