And the yellow medal for cowardice goes to: the International Olympic Committee.
Quivering like a nervous gymnast on a beam, stumbling like a hurdler, sinking to the bottom like a diver, the IOC has squandered a golden opportunity to demonstrate its integrity to the world with its spineless decision not to ban Russia’s entire team from the Rio Olympics, which are to begin with opening ceremonies on August 5.
In so doing, these Games remain as mired in muck as much of the water off Rio’s coast.
Thomas Bach, a German lawyer who is president of the IOC, had described Russia’s blatant chicanery in a statement as «a shocking and unprecedented attack on the integrity of sport.» After a full report on how Russian officials found nefarious ways to circumvent Olympic doping regulations, cheating successfully in multiple sports, Bach also decried an «unprecedented level of criminality» and vowed that his organization would not hesitate to punish the guilty. He proceeded to do nothing of the kind, choosing instead for a cop-out position, punting the decision over whether to ban athletes to the Olympic federations of each specific sport.
Despite the fact that all Russia’s track-and-field athletes have already been banned from these Olympics, any expectation that the IOC would expel all that nation’s entrants have fallen by the wayside. Instead, the buck has been passed to the individual federations, which must now — while seriously pressed for time — judge each competitor’s individual case. It is a daunting task, particularly at this late date.
Bach and the IOC could have set a zero-tolerance example for the future. The IOC could have shown, with fist-pounding clarity and once and for all, that widespread fraud will be treated with more than a stern warning and a slap on the wrist. They could have backed the strong recommendation of the World Antidoping Agency, or WADA: a total banishment of Russia’s team for 2016. WADA’s investigation offered ironclad proof that Russia covered up hundreds of positive drug tests of Summer and Winter Olympic athletes alike.
Despite Russian leaders’ torch-hot outrage and denials, only a fool, or someone with a personal interest in Russia’s prosperity could refute the findings of the WADA report — not to mention the admissions of a Russian official with first-hand knowledge of the team’s methods who told The New York Times how the dopers repeatedly avoided detection.
Worldwide exasperation with cheating athletes has risen with leaps and bounds over the last few decades. From the despicable deeds of bike racer Lance Armstrong and baseball players like Alex Rodriguez, idols who went from heroes to zeroes, to the Olympic gold medalists like Ben Johnson and Marion Jones who were caught red-handed, admirers of great athletic prowess have become fed up with the revelations of how the objects of their admiration have cheated and lied.
Who is on the up-and-up? Whose efforts can be trusted any more? No one knows. A fourth-place finisher in an Olympic event goes home without a medal, left to wonder, perhaps for the rest of his or her life, if someone who placed ahead of them did so through unethical and unsportsmanlike means.
Many lovers of the Olympic ideal wanted Russia to be taught a lesson, to be penalized in a manner that would truly sting. So many of the results from the 2014 Sochi Olympics have since become suspicious, and what is the point of conducting a full investigation if all you are going to do is wag a finger and go naughty-naughty, shame-shame-on-you and then let the guilty party off with yet another warning not to do it again?
For this was not a single athlete’s indiscretion. This was systematic, organizational deceit.
Russia should be out of Rio, period. Many times before, a nation’s entire team had missed an Olympics due to mitigating circumstances, often political in nature. Egypt and Iraq and Switzerland and Spain in 1956. South Africa and Rhodesia in 1964 and 1972. China and a number of African nations in 1976. After the USA boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics, quid pro quo, Russia skipped the 1984 Los Angeles Games, as did 14 other nations.
Never, however, has a whole country had an Olympic mat pulled away by virtue of being exposed as untrustworthy and dishonorable. Purity of intention and spirit is everything the Olympic Games is meant to represent. Today this ideal is eroding bit by bit. Its rings are smudged and blurred.
Runners and jumpers and swimmers and tumblers will be in Brazil, doing their best. How each will end up, we shall see. But the first result of the Rio Olympics is already in, and here’s what happened:
The International Olympic Committee, after blowing a chance to be strong, fell flat on its face.
Mike Downey is a former Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune columnist and a frequent contributor to CNN. The views expressed in this commentary are his.