The West’s collective punishment of Russian athletes

The Cold War on doping is ruining sport.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

Despite the storm kicked up by the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) report into Russia’s so-called state-sponsored doping programme, which allegedly fuelled its athletes’ success at London 2012 and Sochi 2014, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) has now stated there will be no blanket ban on Russian participation in the Rio Olympics. Instead, it will be left to individual sports federations to decide whether Russian competitors, provided they prove themselves innocent of doping, will be allowed to compete. So, for example, the International Tennis Federation has given Russian tennis players the thumbs up; the International Association of Athletics Federations has given Russian track-and-field stars the thumbs down.

That seems severe, right? Runners, jumpers, throwers all potentially banned, by dint of their nationality. Yes, some federations are allowing Russians to participate. But they’re only doing so provided the athletes prove they are not doping, provided, that is, they refute the presumption of guilt. So this is not a light punishment. Nor is it fair. There will be athletes who, despite not contravening WADA rules, will be prevented from competing simply because they’re Russian. As former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev put it: ‘The innocent will be punished with the guilty. The principle of collective punishment is unacceptable for me.’

And yet despite this harshly unjust measure, there are still those in the West, among media and sporting bodies, including WADA, who think the IOC hasn’t been harsh enough. It has fudged it, they claim. It has ducked its responsibility. It has avoided making the hard decision – to ban Russia completely.

What this angry, hand-wrung, absurdly over-the-top response shows is that this is not really about some tampered samples in a dodgy drug-testing lab in Russia. It’s not really about cheating in sport. It’s about Russia itself. That is what is driving this bizarre demand for one nation’s total exclusion from the Olympics – a deep animus towards all things Russian.

Just read some of the commentary around the doping scandal. It is as if Western observers are trapped in some John le Carré-authored nightmare, sweating Cold War intrigue out of every pore. They can’t help mentioning spies, secret doors and some shadowy unspecified threat. They then move effortlessly, thoughtlessly from condemning the specific allegations of doping to condemning a whole nation. The problem, as one columnist puts it, is ‘the absence of public morality in Russia’.

It helps, of course, to be able to say that doping in Russia was ‘state-sponsored’, rather than, as it is in the West, a matter of private enterprise. Because once you’ve asserted that the evil here is the Russian state itself, with Vladimir Putin, the Despicable Me of global politics, at the helm, then doping becomes just one more example of, as one report puts it, the ‘rotten state’ of Russia, up there, as another piece lists, with the poisoning of Alex Litvinenko, the civil war in Ukraine, and support for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.

The excited condemnation of doping in Russia by Western observers is informed by what it often morphs into: the wilful condemnation of Russia as a whole. No wonder so many suggest that the latest doping revelations recall the German Democratic Republic’s state-controlled doping programme of the 1970s and 1980s. The Cold War still frames their thinking. Russia still hovers, Red Menace-like, on their political horizons.

But this latest outbreak of Russia-bashing also reveals something about the moralisation of sport, its use as a means to separate the good from the wicked. And central to this moralisation is the war on doping. As anyone who has looked at the history of drugs in sport will know, not only have people always sought to ‘enhance’ their performance, but the distinction between what is permitted in the pursuit of excellence and what is prohibited has been a line drawn in constantly shifting sand. And that’s because what is legally performance-enhancing and what’s not is not an objective, technical question for sports’ rulemakers. It’s a moral question, informed, often, by moral prejudices. From the 1980s onwards, the war on doping has become a way to parse the ‘clean’ from the corrupted, to distinguish between those who embody the ‘spirit of sport’ and those who threaten it, those who tear at its ‘moral fabric’, as the IAAF put it in the late 1980s. Those who are like us, and those who are like them.

Through sport, through the Olympics, Russia is being conjured up in the moral rhetoric of anti-doping as ‘corrupt’, ‘tainted’, ‘unclean’. It is being turned into the Ben Johnson of international politics. As the Guardian’s edtiorial puts it: ‘The potential schism [between the West and Russia] is not about politics. It is a schism between the honest and the dishonest.’ This is the wrong way round. It is only through the prism of sport and doping that the West is able to translate its antipathy towards Russia into a moral conflict, between the clean and honest, and the tainted and dishonest. It finds in sport the moral authority it lacks in the sphere of politics proper, where the conflict in Ukraine and the unravelling of the Middle East resist easy, black-and-white moralising. The Cold War, which was played out in the political key of freedom versus totalitarianism, is now being fought in the drug-testing key of clean versus tainted.

But this moralisation of sport, this use of the Olympics to pursue an anti-doping crusade against, in this case, a whole nation, doesn’t leave the actual sporting spectacle untouched. It tarnishes it. Indeed, such is the infernal obsession with doping and drugs, with pursuing the unclean, the globally dishonest, that no one believes in the integrity of sporting achievement anymore. It is always infected with suspicion. ‘They’re all on something’, runs the refrain.

Certain Russian athletes may have broken the rules. But the Cold War on doping is ruining sport.

Tim Black is a spiked columnist.

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Topics Politics


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