“I support the fight against banned substances in sports. It is an evil that needs to be eradicated. Athletes found guilty of using it should be barred from competing…However, I am concerned and deeply saddened by the possibility that, in the event Russian athletes are banned from participating in the Olympics, persons not culpable would be punished as well as those who are guilty. I regard the principle of collective punishment as unacceptable.”
The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF)—the world governing body for the sport of Athletics, better known to Americans as “track & field”—decided in mid June to prohibit all Russian athletes from competing at the Rio Olympic Games next month. The basis for the IAAF decision is its finding of systematic corruption by the Russian agency responsible for mandatory testing of athletes to detect the use of prohibited performance enhancing drugs. Those tests are based on what are commonly called “anti-doping rules” adopted by the World Anti-Doping Agency (“WADA”)—an international organization responsible for the rules and regulations contained in the World Anti Doping Code.
Technically, what the IAAF did on 17 June was to determine that the sport’s governing body in Russia, the All-Russia Athletic Federation (RUSAF, sometimes appearing as “ARAF”), did not meet the conditions for reinstatement earlier set down by the IAAF. Those conditions were threefold:
RUSAF “complies in full with the World Anti-Doping Code and IAAF Anti-Doping Rules.”
The IAAF and the Russian anti-doping agency RUSADA “are able to conduct their anti-doping programmes [sic] in Russia (in particular, drug-testing) effectively and without interference.”
“[T]hat as a result, the reintegration of Russian athletes into international competitions will not jeopardise [sic] the integrity of those competitions.”
“In short,” an IAAF taskforce concluded:
RUSAF must show that there is now a culture of zero tolerance towards doping in Russian athletics, and that RUSAF, RUSADA, and the public authorities in Russia, working in cooperation, have created an anti-doping infrastructure that is effective in detecting and deterring cheats, and therefore provides reasonable assurance and protection to clean athletes both inside and outside of Russia.
Despite some noted improvements, the IAAF task force concluded “there remains a clear lack of respect for the anti-doping rules.” The report concluded, “The deep-seated culture of tolerance (or worse) for doping that got RUSAF suspended in the first place appears not to have changed materially to date” [finding 5.1] and “There are detailed allegations, which are already partly substantiated, that the [Russian] Ministry of Sport, far from supporting the anti-doping effort, has in fact orchestrated systematic doping and the covering up of adverse analytical findings” [finding 5.3].
Fair enough. There is no basis on which to dispute the IAAF’s findings regarding the manifold deficiencies of RUSAF and RUSADA, nor its conclusion that the Russian Ministry of Sport was fully complicit in the systematic evasion of international anti-doping rules. In other words, all of the responsible Russian organizations and governmental agencies cheated, and did so systematically, repeatedly, and shamelessly. These acts are doubly despicable for involving shakedowns of Russian athletes—one Russian athlete, the marathon runner Liliya Shobukhova, said she gave €450,000 (about $495,000) to senior Russian officials in exchange for covering up violations—and for the alleged involvement of the IAAF’s president at the time, Lamine Diack. He reportedly admitted to French investigators accepting some €1,000,000 in bribes to cover up Russian cheating. His son is also implicated.
The effect of the IAAF action is to change RUSAF’s earlier temporary suspension as an IAAF member into a full one. What it means is that “athletes, and athlete support personnel from Russia may not compete in International Competitions including…the Olympic Games.” In other words, “the decision not to reinstate RUSAF means that Russian athletes remain ineligible under IAAF Rules to compete in International Competitions including…the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.”
The IAAF concluded that some number of Russian athletes evaded anti-doping rules. Those athletes cheated, systematically, repeatedly, and shamelessly. They have dishonored themselves and their country. The author’s view is that they should be identified publicly and suspended for life from competing in any sport, no exceptions.
That being said, there is no basis for suspending every Russian athlete, including women and men who are determined pursuant to WADA-approved procedures not to have violated anti-doping rules. It is here the faint odor of hypocrisy creeps into the story.
Does every athlete found to have cheated by taking some performance enhancing substance receive a lifetime suspension? No, they do not. The United States’ top male sprinter—he has qualified to compete in the 100 meter and 200 meter dashes and the 4×100 relay in Rio—has twice been suspended for violating anti-doping rules, once in 2001 for two years (he was reinstated early by the IAAF) and a second time in 2006, when he was suspended for eight years (avoiding a lifetime suspension only by cooperating with authorities). So, too, the United States’ top qualifier in the 400 meter dash, who also is expected to compete in the 4×400 relay. He received a two-year suspension in 2010 that was eventually reduced by three months.
There are many, many more athletes who will compete in Rio after serving suspensions for violating WADA drug rules. And there are Russian athletes who will not be allowed to compete in Rio who have not done so. And that is the fundamental unfairness about the IAAFs action. Nor are the IAAF’s hands clean. Former WADA head Dick Pound said “It is not credible that elected officials were unaware of the situation affecting athletics in Russia. If, therefore, the circle of knowledge was so extensive, why was nothing done?”
The prohibition against collective punishment—where all members of a group are punished irrespective of whether a given individual is guilty or innocent—is enshrined in international law. In the matter of Russian track & field athletes, however, that principle has taken a back seat to expediency.
I am no apologist for the Russian government. Nor am I unaware how deeply rooted corruption is in many Russian sports governing bodies. That being said, I am of the generation of American athletes who saw their Olympic chances disappear with the United States’ boycott of the 1980 Games. Whether President Carter was right to prohibit American athletes from competing in Moscow that year has been debated ad nauseum. But that was a decision by our President, marking our nation’s principled opposition to the Soviet invasion of a sovereign country. It was not a decision by some international organization that for many years looked the other way and now seeks to redeem itself, unfortunately on the back of athletes who get no say in the matter.
In late July the International Olympic Committee decided against banning all Russian athletes from Rio regardless of their sport. The head of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, Travis Tygart, criticized that decision, saying “the IOC has refused to take decisive leadership. The decision regarding Russian participation and the confusing mess left in its wake is a significant blow to the rights of clean athletes.” Mr. Tygart is an honorable man who has worked tirelessly to eradicate illegal drugs from sports. But it is worth pondering how those clean athletes will feel about competing against the confessed drug cheaters who will be in Rio. I suspect they would rather see a clean Russian athlete who isn’t given a first chance than a dirty athlete from somewhere else who got an undeserved second chance.
 IAAF Taskforce: Interim Reports to IAAF Council (17 June 2016) 1. The full report is posted on the IAAF.org website.