When the Olympic Games open in Brazil on Friday, Russian athletes will be there. Not all of them, but many. It would be better for the games, and the other athletes, if the International Olympic Committee had banned Russia.
That was the recommendation of the World Anti-Doping Agency, which released a report on July 18 confirming that Russia cheated systematically, effectively and with the support of the Russian state at its own 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
The Russian scheme, run by the Ministry of Sport and with the assistance of the Federal Security Service (the KGB’s successor), swapped samples from Russian athletes who were cheating by taking drugs, thus allowing them to keep on competing.
WADA concluded that Russian cheating was so pervasive — taking place in 20 Olympic Summer sports — that it was no longer possible to allow Russia the presumption of innocence. It therefore urged that Russian athletes and officials be barred from Rio de Janeiro.
Unfortunately, the IOC decided that individual athletic federations should decide whether to allow Russian athletes to compete. So far, at least 110 athletes from Russia’s 387-member team have been banned, including all track and field competitors. The reason why the Russians were such vigorous cheaters is obvious, but worth emphasizing: Vladimir Putin was not going to allow Russia to do poorly in an Olympic competition in Sochi. There was glory in hosting, and more glory in winning. Therefore, they cheated.
Predictably, Putin is whining that Russia’s being treated unfairly, that it’s the target of a deliberate political campaign. As he put it last week, a ban on all Russian athletes is “not compatible with sport, justice in general, or the basic norms of law.”
Hogwash. Having tried to impress the world, and the Russian people, by a spectacle of Russian victory in a competition held on Russian territory, he’s now playing the victim to the same audience, for the same purpose: to justify his rule.
Yes, banning all Russian athletes would be collective justice. That’s the point. The Russian Olympic Committee acts on behalf of all of Russia’s athletes (or, rather, on behalf of the Russian state). If Russia cheats, it should pay the price, which would mean it can’t send a team to the games. Russia’s doping epidemic is part of wider problems. The games are so large and so expensive that it’s becoming harder and harder to find cities in democratic nations that want to host them. Autocrats, by contrast, have the money, and they want the prestige.
But I’m actually encouraged by the Russian fiasco in Rio. For the first time in years, serious people are arguing that the right way to deal with persistent cheaters is, in effect, to suspend their membership in an international organization. And that is a huge step forward.
What if we applied the same idea to the UN Human Rights Council, where autocracies like Russia sit in judgment on decent places like Canada? Or to Interpol, the organization for police cooperation, which Russia also persistently seeks to abuse?
After all, Russia looks respectable partly because it’s in the Olympics, the UN and so on. By suspending Russia’s athletes, you would strike a blow at what that nation values most: the prestige it wins by being included in all of these clubs, where it sits alongside the world’s democracies. That was the point of Sochi: Putin treated holding the games as proof that his regime wasn’t a pariah. But that wasn’t good enough: He tried to gild the lily, and he got caught.
Yes, compared with invading Georgia, occupying Crimea, and apparently hacking the Democratic National Committee, Russian cheating at Sochi isn’t a big deal. But that’s the point: Russia cheats even when it’s just playing games. And the way to deal with persistent cheaters is to kick them out.
Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Thatcher Center for Freedom.