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Is Rio 2016 Better Or Worse With Russian Athletes Absent?
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Is Rio 2016 Better Or Worse With Russian Athletes Absent?

Picture of Luke Bradshaw
Sports Editor
Updated: 9 January 2017
With utter confusion over which Russian athletes are clean and which aren’t, the 2016 Olympics have been tarnished. But which sports are worse off — the ones with Russians competing, or the ones without?

Given that the McLaren report revealed there was ‘systemic doping over a period of four years across the majority of Olympic sports,’ it seems incredibly perverse that 70 percent of Russia’s athletes will be competing at the Rio Olympics.

The International Paralympic Committee made the bold move of issuing a blanket ban for all Russian athletes set to compete in the 2016 Paralympics, something their Olympic counterparts failed to do. The most galling aspect of the IOC’s actions was that they didn’t make a decision at all.

Mark Johnson, whose book Spitting in the Soup examines doping in sport, told Culture Trip that the IOC “kicked the can down the road to other federations, rather than make the decision themselves.”

He continues, “The IOC missed an opportunity to send a message that an entire nation could be punished. It was an opportunity to demonstrate huge power. Nationalism is a big factor. Maybe nation states would reconsider their programs had Russia been banned, but the IOC chose not to, for economic reasons I assume, and they sent the message that you can get away with it.”

Further to this, is the question raised by David Goldblatt, author of The Games: A Global History of the Olympics. Goldblatt asks whether the decision to ban an entire country depends on the country involved. “It was testament to Russia’s level of intimacy and importance within global sporting bureaucracy. Would a country like Kenya, for example, be treated the same?” He adds, “I recognize the potential unfairness of the blanket ban but ultimately it was a missed opportunity because it goes beyond Russia — there have been polluted collaborations in sport for a long time and it could have gone some way to addressing the wider issue.”

Already, athletes representing Russia in Rio have been roundly booed by local crowds. Fans have no concrete evidence on who is clean and who isn’t. With some Russian athletes allowed to compete in Rio, and others banned from doing so, the Olympic waters couldn’t be muddier.

But will the controversy affect audiences? For Johnson, it is unlikely. “I think it depends on fans. Since the Olympics included professionals it’s been an entertainment product, not a moral teaching mission.” He says, “The power of myth is a huge part of sport, it’s built on this foundation. We portray sport as having these clean values but it never has. In running and cycling it’s been there since day one. It took until the 1960s for it to finally became stigmatized, but that didn’t prevent it. Broadcasters are paying higher and higher sums to cover major sport, that behavior suggests the fans will be there regardless.”

Cycling is a good example. The sport’s history is intrinsically linked with doping and yet fans flock to see it in record numbers, with its popularity growing each year. Certain Olympic sports carry similar reputations, but every new Olympic Games boasts greater audiences than the last.

Johnson explains doping — whether rumored or proven — is not enough to stop fans tuning in, citing the example of baseball in the United States. “In the 1990s it became common knowledge that baseball players were using steroids. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were having a home run battle, and fans flocked to see them.” He explains, “Maybe it’s an American thing. We tend to be pragmatic, or hypocritical. We’re one of two countries to advertise direct-to-consumer marketing drugs on television. Maybe we’re less likely to hold athletes up to a certain set of standards regarding those issues.”

So if the governing body doesn’t ban athletes who dope, and the fans don’t stop watching, clean athletes are left wondering how far is too far? And who can tell if a sport is devalued or not by the absence of particular athletes?

“It depends on the sport,” Johnson says. “If particular athletes are missing then the standard may drop, but the opposite is that the victory is even more valid because there are less chemically enhanced athletes.”

The IAAF banned Russian athletes from Rio, so is the standard of athletics at the Games better or worse? It could be argued that the gold medal in the women’s pole vault may not carry the same gravitas without Yelena Isinbayeva – widely considered the greatest in her sport’s history – competing in the event. Some of her opponents may want to test themselves and compete against the best, some may be happy to see the back of an athlete who competes for a country with a doping program, whether she herself is clean or not.

Yelena Isinbayeva celebrating at the 2013 World Championships
Yelena Isinbayeva celebrating at the 2013 World Championships | ©

When it comes to absent athletes, it is possible to draw comparisons with the Olympic Games of 1980 and 1984, when the USA and Soviet Union boycotted the events the other was hosting. Johnson says, “I don’t think American athletes who won in L.A. in 1984 are looked upon any less because Russians weren’t there. I’m sure it’s the same for Russians in 1980. People remember the winners.”

Those comparisons, however, end there. The reasons for absent athletes in 2016 and the 1980s have “absolutely no comparison whatsoever” according to Goldblatt. He explains, “The boycotts moved in a wider, Cold War cultural context. The Russians would like the world to believe the IOC always wants to blame, exclude and gang up on Russia. The Kremlin would like to us to think that they were, but I’m not buying it.”

Alonzo Babers crosses the finish line to win gold in the 400m in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. ©
Alonzo Babers crosses the finish line to win gold in the 400m in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. | ©

When asked if individual events at Rio were devalued Goldblatt told Culture Trip, ‘”It’s devalued the sense of a level playing field, but it depends on what we mean by the word ‘devalue?’ The main thing that is devalued is the standing of the IOC. Given that Rio has failed to deliver on urban development, human rights, education and everything the organizers promised, what’s left? The IOC had one major decision to make and it failed. I find that, above all, the worst part about it. It portrays itself as the ultimate in governance in the sporting world, but it has remarkably little political leadership.”

For the IOC to claw back any element of integrity it must go against an inherent part of sport. People may not want to admit it, but doping has existed in sport for as long as sport has existed. Johnson says, “Sport has never been clean. Only really since the 1960s have we been trying to impose a radical state of chemical and moral parity that is alien to elite sporting traditions. Doping isn’t a new arrival in sport, it’s the opposite – the banning is the new part. The East Germans systematically doped in the 1970s and 80s and there wasn’t a single positive test.”

Although Goldblatt believes stories will persist regarding doping at Rio, it hasn’t affected the way fans watch sport. He says, “People aren’t naïve but sport is a complex relationship between fans and athletes. Some fans are incredibly cynical and some are right behind their athletes despite the grey areas. Over time folks may become more jaded, and eventually we may reach a point where people have had enough, I just don’t think we’re there yet.”

As so is often the case, the doping scandal has become the side story. Eyebrows will be raised when Russians take to the podium, but it appears their medals and records will be remembered far longer than the rumors that go with them.