Barely two months away from the lighting of the Olympic flame in South Korea, the Winter Games are taking shape.
Athletes from dozens of countries are qualifying for spots in 102 events in 15 sports. So we’re starting to learn the names, faces and stories of the people we’ll be rooting for and against.
Matt Lauer has been canned by NBC as yet another male who engaged in grotesque behavior toward women. So we’ll be waking up to Olympic reports by a “Today Show” crew anchored by someone else, a bit of cognitive dissonance to which we’ll all happily adapt.
North Korean missiles are flying overhead, the latest being Tuesday’s higher-and-longer behemoth, and angry political rhetoric continues to fly lower but even longer. So there will be some trepidation and outright fear among spectators and athletes in Pyeongchang.
But the biggest potential Games-changer comes Tuesday, in a meeting room in Lausanne, Switzerland, when the International Olympic Committee executive board decides how severely to punish Russia for the elaborate state-backed doping program it conducted at the Winter Olympics it hosted in Sochi in 2014.
Russia’s top sportsman — the bare-chested hunter-swimmer-judoka-boater-hockey player-skier-equestrian President Vladimir Putin — has denied the scandal as fake news and says it’s just an American invention intended to harm him in his 2018 re-election. That would be a deliciously ironic piece of turnabout-is-fair-play, given the Russian campaign to influence America’s presidential election last year, but it’s an absurd contention on its face.
The doping fraud was well documented even before The New York Times got a look at the diaries of chemist Grigory Rodchenkov, the head of Russia’s anti-doping lab until 2015, when he fled to the United States. Rodchenkov was a prime source for investigators who exposed the covert program, and his writings revealed a long list of Russian co-conspirators. Russian officials blame Rodchenkov, as if he was the architect and sole actor. But no one goes rogue in Putin’s Russia, especially on something like this. There’s a reason Rodchenkov is in an FBI witness protection program.
The doping program was breathtakingly audacious, involving more than 1,000 athletes in more than 30 sports over five years. But the Sochi part of the scheme would have been rejected by a B movie producer for its improbability.
It involved the monthslong collection of clean urine specimens from athletes who would be competing with illegal drugs in their systems, storing the specimens in baby food jars, and swapping them for tainted samples by passing them through a hole in the wall between a storeroom and the drug-testing lab in Sochi. But it worked.
Until it was exposed.
Scores of Russian athletes have been banned in the last two years, nearly two dozen from Sochi alone. So far, Russians have been stripped of 11 medals won in Sochi. Among them is a bobsledder who won two golds. Now he heads Russia’s bobsled federation. The sports minister then is now deputy prime minister. Armed with his own alternative facts, he’s blaming the IOC and anti-doping officials for failing to keep the Olympics clean.
Russia once topped the Sochi medal count. Now it’s dropped behind Canada, Norway and the United States.
The IOC might ban Russia from Pyeongchang. Or it might ban all Russian symbols — no flag at opening or closing ceremonies, no uniforms, no anthem played for victories — which could provoke a Russian boycott.
There’s no telling where “clean” Russian athletes would finish. But if they’re not there, in a competitive sense they would be missed.
Given the crime, that’s more cognitive dissonance to which most of us would happily adapt.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.