Of all the stupendous feats performed at the Rio Games over the forthcoming weeks, none will be greater than the political gymnastics of the International Olympic Committee. The IOC hails athletes and feasts off their endeavours – yet when it comes to doing right by them it fails time and time again. It is an 180-degree flip worthy of Simone Biles.
Remember this when watching the 10,500 athletes compete: most will be doing so for free, a fact that becomes increasingly galling with every billion‑dollar TV deal the IOC signs. Sure, some athletes will earn prize money from their national Olympic committees and sponsors. Most, though, will be earning far less than those bloated Olympic administrators who travel the globe on the gravy trains and planes.
To exacerbate matters, the IOC continues to ignore all pleas over Rule 40, which imposes choking restrictions on non-Olympic sponsors. Often they are a competitor’s main source of income: yet athletes who dare violate Rule 40 – by thanking a non-Olympic sponsor in a tweet, say – could be chucked out of the Games. It perpetuates a system where there are a few super-rich athletes, a small middle class and an overwhelming majority who struggle to make ends meet.
And what kind of message does the IOC send when it ignores the recommendations of the World Anti‑Doping Agency to ban all Russian athletes and officials from Rio after the McLaren report’s exposé of doping? Or when it contributes only $15m a year to Wada when it gets $1.23bn from NBC to show the Rio Olympics?
It is understandable that many will sneer at the IOC’s pledge of “zero tolerance” to doping and ask whether they can trust anything they see. And so clean athletes are punished twice due to the IOC’s twists and contortions – first because their pleas to ban Russia have been ignored and then because the dwindling confidence in the whole system leads their performances to be questioned, too.
The letter from 13 anti-doping organisations to the Guardian at the weekend puts it bluntly: “Through its response to the Russian doping problem, which has been percolating for some time, the IOC failed to protect the rights of clean athletes.”
Then there was the IOC’s cruel and cynical decision to bar Yuliya Stepanova who, along with her husband Vitaly, did more than anyone to expose doping in Russia. Everyone knows the current system of testing can be circumvented – indeed, when the doping review board of the International Association of Athletics Federations wrote to Russian track and field athletes it had excluded from Rio it admitted: “Negative test results in and of themselves unfortunately are no guarantee that an athlete is not doping – there is strong evidence (including the notorious cases involving Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong) that it is quite possible to ‘beat the testing’ through the use of micro-dosing and other techniques.” That is why whistleblowers and investigations are particularly vital. Yet the IOC did not even throw Stepanova – who is in hiding in the US – a bone. Instead it sent a message to other potential whistleblowers: you will not be looked after by us.
Wada, too, has questions to answer, something the IOC president, Thomas Bach, brought up in an IOC press conference on Sunday. Stepanov first contacted the organisation in 2010 and the discus thrower Darya Pishchalnikova warned of systemic doping in Russia in December 2012 before pledging her help. Instead Wada sent her email to Russian sports officials in charge of the doping programme. Imagine a detective being given such information – facts, details, supergrasses – yet passing it to the bad guys?
Yet by 2013 Wada, for all its bungling and torpor, wanted to put the issue of Russian doping on the table. But, as The Australian reported this weekend: “Plans for the Wada president and vice-president, John Fahey and Arne Ljungqvist, to hold crisis talks in Russia about intelligence they had received was stymied by the IOC.” Yes, them again.
Remember, too, that Wada and the IOC are hardly independent bodies. The Wada president, Sir Craig Reedie, is an IOC vice-president and several IOC members and supporters sit on the Wada board. As Richard Ings, former head of the Australian Anti-Doping Agency, says: “If Wada is ineffective, then the IOC own it.”
There is a final point worth making. Last week’s decision by the IOC to pass the buck to the 28 International Federations – allowing them to decide which Russians are allowed into Rio – is surely counter to the Wada Code, which was set up to harmonise decisions on doping issues across countries and sport. For interpretations of the IOC’s dictates have varied wildly: weightlifting has a total ban, judo a free for all. It is mess.
The IOC’s ruling was also, perversely, unfair on some Russians. It arbitrarily excluded those who had already served a doping ban from Rio – discriminatory given others with similar histories, such as Justin Gatlin, are allowed in – and it blocked those named by McLaren as “protected athletes” by the Russian state, even though they have never failed a drugs test, a violation of due process. Both rulings will surely not survive a visit to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
So there you have it. The IOC has let down clean athletes. It doesn’t reward whistleblowers. The funding it provides to doping bodies is inadequate. And yet it has the nerve to proclaim athletes are at the heart of what it stands for.