The legacy of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics continues to evolve. Observers may remember that what started as a PR mess for its Russian hosts turned into a startlingly dominant display of athletic dominance by the conclusion of the games. The Russian team, which had ranked eleventh in overall medal count just at the Vancouver games four years prior, more than doubled its medal count from 15 to 33, coming in first by a comfortable margin.
Now, a report by the World Anti-Doping Agency confirms claims by Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of Russia’s national anti-doping laboratory, that he helped dozens of Russian competitors, including medalists, obtain an unfair and illegal advantage in major international sporting events starting as early as 2011.
What’s important to understand is that this program was organized from the top down. In the wake of a weak showing at Vancouver, the Russian government decided to cheat, and it did so for years. President Vladimir Putin, who was very clear that he wanted Sochi to burnish Russia’s international image, got what he wanted, whether or not the obvious assumption of his direct involvement carries water.
Here’s the problem: Although the crime was clearly perpetrated at an institutional level, the brunt of the punishment is being borne by individuals. Putin’s response so far has been to insinuate that the accusations are unfair attacks from a typical shadowy western cabal, protect his loyal minister of sport, and agree to the suspension of all the individual athletes named. In other words, he took two steps towards unaccountability with a state sponsored doping program, and is now making a show of grudgingly taking one step back.
His ideal outcome is that the institutional rule-breaking is tacitly tolerated in exchange for cooperation on the punishment of a few entirely replaceable parts. The doping machine that has helped Russia achieve a dominant athletic reputation becomes accepted.
Such low-level aggression allows antagonistic countries like Russia and China to slowly redefine the scope of what is acceptable all the time. Generally, the west is bad at stopping such aggression wholesale, as has been made painfully clear during the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The International Olympic Committee has the power to rebuff this particular attempt. They can decide to punish the institution instead of the individuals, starting by denying Russia the ability to participate in the 2016 Rio Olympics. They still might—their most recent statement talks about investigating “legal options with regard to a collective ban of all Russian athletes for the Olympic Games 2016 versus the right to individual justice,” and delays judgment until relevant court cases are ruled upon later this week—but no doubt it is tempting to avoid a high profile fight with Putin, not to mention unnecessary damage to the careers of clean Russian athletes.
The IOC absolutely should ban Russia, despite the costs. The Olympics is all about free and fair competition. It would be disgraceful to sacrifice that ideal by tolerating a plainly culpable government in favor of punishing a surely incomplete list of confirmed cheaters.
Further, anything short of a total ban is just a Band-Aid solution. So long as the punishment, and thus public outcry, isn’t directed at those in charge, they will continue to cheat because it remains in their interests to do so. The public humiliation of an Olympic ban would serve as a potent bargaining tool to force Putin to install new leadership and transparency, so permanently solving the problem.
The Olympic Committee has an opportunity to stand resolute against the encroachments of an unaccountable strongman. They should take it.