PtG Comment 09.02.2018

The games that are not really games

The battle against state-supported doping is over, and whoever fought it, lost. Play the Game’s international director takes a walk through the parallel reality of the Olympic Movement.

“The standard operating procedures for games and competitions take place in a separate sphere, detached from what we would call normal rules and regulations in society. That means that a labour contract is not really a labour contract, bankruptcy is really not bankruptcy, that medication is really not medication, that criminal activities are really not crimes…”

On a day-to-day basis, sport offers plenty of opportunities to recall the observations on a world of parallel realities, made at the opening of Play the Game 2011 by the Belgian professor Hans Bruyninckx.

But the sometimes surrealistic events world sport have managed to produce in response to the Russian doping crisis in the one and a half year between the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, have offered particular good evidence to suggest that Olympic sport is out of this world.

Thanks to the actions taken mainly by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), we can add a number of items to professor Bruyninckx’s list.

A ban, for instance, is not really a ban anymore: Although the IOC in early December suspended the Russian Olympic Committee from the upcoming Olympics, Russia will send a delegation of no less than 169 athletes to Pyeongchang. A 27% cut from the record participation of 232 athletes at the 2014 Olympics on their home turf in Sochi, but almost as many as the 177 athletes sent to Vancouver in 2010.

To call this a ban is a very creative use of language. But aren’t the Russians competing as neutral athletes? In principle, yes, but what was formerly called “Neutral Olympic Athlete” has in this case been renamed “Olympic Athlete of Russia”. Neutral is not really neutral anymore.

Watering words down

This was the strongest response the IOC could muster to sanction what the first McLaren report called a “state-sponsored” doping system. But state-sponsoring is also not what it was. Under pressure from the Russians, who argued that in Russia the “state” is equal to President Putin and his closest entourage whereas the Sports Ministry is not “the state”, the otherwise staunch Richard H. McLaren decided to soften his words and used the expression “institutionalized doping”. And Thomas Bach has watered down the notion even further by naming it “systemic doping”.

These word games have helped justify a far from systemic answer to the biggest doping scandal in a generation, a scandal that has endangered athletes exposed to drug experiments and whistleblowers exposed to the desire for revenge from Russian politicians, sports leaders and intelligence services.

By these decisions, the IOC President Thomas Bach has said the IOC wanted to strike a ‘balance’ and avoid a ‘humiliation’ of Russia. You may wonder if the Russian authorities, when setting up their state-supported doping system, showed the same concern for striking a balance and not humiliating other nations.

In the playbook the IOC has now written, Russia will suffer only from a toned-down appearance in South Korea and the absence of some of their most suspicious athletes, coaches and officials. But if they all behave well, Russia will reappear from the ashes with its flags and national colours at the Closing Ceremony, and soon everything will be back to normal.

The battles in and over CAS

However, what the Olympic family would like to call normal, may not really be normal anymore. There are various outstanding questions that may drag the tensions out for years. Not all members in the Olympic family and its extensions are ready to forget.

The World-Anti Doping Agency (WADA) has demanded that Russia acknowledges the findings of the McLaren report and thereby confirm the existence of an institutionalised doping system as well as fraud at the anti-doping procedures before, during and after the Sochi Olympics. Until then, Russia will not be reinstated as compliant with the World Anti-Doping Code and the restructured anti-doping agency RUSADA will not regain formal recognition.

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) is still suspending its Russian branch, and so is the International Paralympic Committee. Both have admitted only very few Russian athletes into their global events.

The legal battles in CAS may continue, and the IOC itself at one point threatened to bring those CAS decisions that was not in their favour, into the public system by appealing it to the Swiss Federal Court.

This was one of the most surrealistic episodes in the ongoing battle: CAS is founded by the IOC and controlled and financed by the Olympic Movement, precisely to avoid that athletes and other stakeholders would seek justice in public courts. And the IOC has repeatedly emphasised that CAS had full independence and took high quality decisions. Until 1st February 2018, that is – when CAS arbitrators found that the IOC could not issue life bans for doping on 39 Russian athletes. A verdict that should surprise no one, since CAS has made similar decisions before.

Immediately, Thomas Bach announced the need of reforming CAS, and it sounded more like a threat than a promise. Perhaps an independent court is not really an independent court?

Or was it all a set-up, an even deeper understanding of parallel realities, a conflict stage-managed by the IOC President and the President of ICAS (the body that rules CAS), the Australian IOC member John Coates? In a thorough analysis, Andy Brown from the Sports Integrity Initiative, suggests that the IOC may deliberately have issued sanctions they knew would be turned down by CAS.

The article also points to the potential conflict of interests of John Coates, who also serves as Chair of the IOC’s Legal Affairs department – which gives legal advice to the IOC leadership on which cases to raise at CAS, among others. Andy Brown speculates that Coates may even have an eye on IOC’s commercial interests in his function as Chair of the Olympic Games Delivery Executive Steering Committee.

Why not a collective ban?

There seems to be one truth that everybody can agree on, regardless of their role in sport and the anti-doping debate: The current state of anti-doping is a mess.

A legal mess, a political mess, even a technical mess (just watch Play the Game Award Winner Hajo Seppelt open and close a sealed doping bottle as it was a soda, and you will understand that in sport, a sealed bottle is not really a sealed bottle).

Most of this mess can be blamed on the IOC who refrained from issuing a general ban on the Russian Olympic Committee when evidence of state-sponsored doping was presented in July 2016, just before the Rio Olympics.

A collective ban would have been fully consistent with the Olympic Charter and the IOC’s commitment to international anti-doping treaties, but in order to minimise the confrontation with the sports political super power Russia, the IOC chose to stress the rights of individual Russian athletes – thereby de facto failing on the responsibility to protect all other individual athletes.

Some would argue an immediate and collective sanction would have split the Olympic Movement for good. But there are many reasons that the Russian president Vladimir Putin would probably be too smart to let Russia leave the Olympic movement. Firstly, it would not be in the long-term interest of Russia to leave a stage where Russia has celebrated so much national pride and would continue to do so, once the sanction expired.

Secondly, Russia has a very strong position in the international sports federations and why give up such political influence? Last, but not least, Russia is hosting the FIFA World Cup 2018, and upsetting the whole world two years before could eventually bring this opportunity to harvest global prestige in jeopardy.

Reap as they sowed

If the IOC would have dared to confront Russia in 2016, it would most likely have lost some broadcast and marketing revenues in Russian market. But outside Russia, it would have restored some of its fading global credibility – which could even have been good for business in the long run.

Admittedly, a tough response from the IOC could have provoked one strong reaction from Moscow: It would appear unlikely that Putin would once again stand behind Thomas Bach when running for re-election as IOC President in 2021. That scenario might have had an important scare factor in Lausanne.

It is now evident that the strategy on focusing on individual rights is backfiring. The IOC is reaping the trouble they sowed.

Today the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics opens under pomp, circumstances and fascinating fireworks. Young people will spellbind hundreds of millions of us by their extraordinary performances, and the Olympic propaganda chiefs will use our fascination of the athletes trying to convince us that the five Olympic Rings symbolise a spirit of fair play and world peace.

But no matter how many illusions the Lords of the Rings can conjure, they will not overshadow the question if Olympic values are still real values.

One reality, though, will stand unparalleled long after the Olympics in South Korea ends: The battle against systemic, institutional, state-organised doping is over.

And whoever fought it, lost.