Russia deserves to be banned from Olympics for shameless cheating

Russia deserves to be banned from Olympics for shameless cheating
© Getty Images

The unprecedented decision by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to ban Russia from the 2018 Winter Olympics is sending reverberations in Moscow and beyond. Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader lauded in the West, called the decision “outrageous.” While Russian representatives have been deflecting questions about doping allegations ahead of both the Winter Olympics and the 2018 World Cup, which Russia will host, they have finally been handed a fair punishment for not only facilitating, but mandating, a level of state-sponsored doping not seen since East Germany’s programs in the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

This punishment is not only appropriate, but long overdue. The IOC decision is the first time in the history of the Olympics that a country has been barred from competing. Last year, the committee opposed a blanket ban on Russian athletes ahead of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, which didn’t send the right signal. Last year, a damning 100-page report by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren revealed the extent of the state-sponsored doping chain in Russia after months of investigations. The report found that the Kremlin and the Federal Security Service colluded to manipulate the drug test results of Russian athletes with aims of Olympic gold. It called for the complete ban of Russian athletes from the Rio Olympics.

The IOC, which has struggled in the past to defend its integrity after corruption scandals and has a record of handing the games to countries with poor human rights records, abdicated its responsibility to defend the integrity of the Olympic games and instead left it up to the individual sports federations to disqualify tainted athletes, disappointing athletes worldwide. In the decision to ban Russia, the IOC not only redeems itself, but it also sets itself on a path to repair Olympic dreams tarnished by Russia’s doping program.

The most surprising and crucial element of the IOC’s decision will curb the Kremlin’s response to it. While the Russian flag has been banned, Russian athletes that pass scrupulous drug tests will be allowed to compete under the IOC flag and will be referred to as “athletes from Russia.” Few Russian athletes will be able to prove their innocence under the strict new criteria, and they will have to compete without the Russian flag, which some will choose not to do in fear of the repercussions they will face at home.

However, punishing all athletes would have played right into Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric in which he claims the doping accusations are a political tactic with no factual basis. In reality, there is more than enough proof, from the McLaren report to personal accounts including that of the director of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, itself to leave no doubt that the allegations are not politically motivated. The IOC has made it hard, though not impossible, for the Kremlin to cry foul. By letting clean Russian athletes compete under a neutral flag, the committee has shown that the punishment is a result of the crime, and not politics.

The timing of this decision is not lost on observers. For one, Russia is three months away from its March presidential election. The effect that this decision will have is still unclear. Unlike the Summer Olympics, it will be difficult to explain the Russian hockey team’s absence from the most prestigious world stage to the public. However, in the past Putin and his inner circle have been able to use incidents of international shaming and condemnation as opportunities to rally national support at home.

In fact, after their partial ban last year, Russia hosted its own Olympic Games, Stars 2016, featuring all of the banned athletes. The Kremlin has been preparing for this decision in recent weeks and Putin has been commenting on the doping allegations, inferring that they are the West’s attempt to influence their upcoming election, thereby laying the groundwork to repudiate this decision. However, with the decision to allow clean athletes to compete, they are sending a clear signal: cheating is not allowed.

There are many winners, from athletes who were cheated and whom played by the rules. Moreover, the symbolism will not be lost on the Ukrainian people, into whose streets Russian tanks rolled illegally to invade and annex Crimea merely hours after Russia blinded the world with Sochi Olympic glory in 2014. For the first time in Olympic history, Ukraine’s flag will be in the parade while Russia’s will not. For the first time, money, influence, and cheating have been chastened. For the first time, Russia’s attempts to undermine the international rules-based order have been adequately punished. Let us hope it is not the last time.

Geysha Gonzalez is associate director of Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.