The findings of Richard McLarens report on state-sponsored doping in Russia mean spectators of the Olympic Game in Rio next month will struggle to believe in the purity of sport
On 4 July 2007, Vladimir Putin arrived by private airplane in Guatemala City ready for the 119 th session of the International Olympic Committee. Russia was one of three nations bidding to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, along with Austria and South Korea. The bookmakers had Sochi down a remote second in the bet, way behind Pyeongchang. Russia had failed to even stimulate the IOCs shortlist to host the 2002 Game and more recently its bid for the 2012 summertime version had finished flat last in the final ballot, behind New York, Paris, Madrid and, of course, London. But Putin was determined this result would be different, which was why he decided to make a rare and unexpected appearance at the Westin Camino Real hotel so he could personally press the flesh of the IOC delegates.
Putin can speak English and French but seldom does so in public, and hardly ever when on diplomatic responsibility. That day, however, he addressed the IOC delegates in both languages. We pledge to construct the bide of Olympians and Paralympians, spectators, journalists, guests in Sochi a safe, enjoyable and memorable experience, Putin told them in faltering English. He promised there would be snow in the mountains, sunshine on the seashore and one more special privilege: no traffic jam. He left immediately after the presentation. The rumour was he did not want to hazard the shame of losing. But he need not have worried Russia won the contest, gaining four referendums more than South Korea.
Putin being here was very important, said Jean-Claude Killy, the former skier and French are part of the IOC. He worked very hard at it. He was nice. He spoke French he never speaks French. He spoke English he never speaks English. The Putin charisma can explain four votes. When Putin arrived back home he announced the decision was without doubt not just a recognition of Russias sporting achievements but it is, beyond any doubt, a judgment of our country. In 2010 Dmitry Medvedev, then Russias president, echoed those terms when he described the 2014 Games as our chance to show our countrys strength and power, our winning spirit.
The one major problem was that at the Vancouver Winter Olympics that same year Russia won only three gold medals, its lowest total in the history of the Games. A similar performance at home in 2014 would have been inexcusable. As David Goldblatt writes in his excellent new history of the Olympics: Putin, as in so many things, has inherited a core faith of the Soviet political elites: that prowess in international sport is an important demonstration at home and abroad of the power and even the splendour of the state. Putin duly announced he would double the teams budget to $172 m. And, at the same time, as has already had been shown in the findings of the McLaren report, the Russian ministry of sport started designing a programme that would allow their athletes to cheat their route to success. At Sochi, Russia duly won 13 gold medals and finished top of the medals table.
They say 3.6 bn people watched at least a single minute of the London Olympics in 2012, and that they expect the audience for the Rio Games will be a bigger still. Leaving aside the veracity of that particular stat there are more pressing questions to be addressed however many millions do tune in to the Game this August every single viewer will have to ask themselves the same simple question: Can I believe what I am considering? Enjoying athletic should not require the willing suspension of incredulity. Spectating is not supposed to be an exercise in poetic faith. But after the exposure of Russias systematic, stateorchestrated doping , not only at Sochi but also at the 2013 World Athletics Championships and the 2015 World Aquatics Championships, the answer to that question is clearer than ever: no.
The IOC has described Russias abuses as a shocking and unprecedented attack on the integrity of sports and said it will not hesitate to take the toughest sanctions available against any individual or organisation implicated. Its executive board is holding a telephone conference this Tuesday afternoon to discuss its next steps which may include provisional measures and sanctions at the Rio Olympics, starting 17 weeks later. Those who know, the men and women who pay close attention to athletics administration and who may, understandably enough, have been made cynical by years of exposure, say its quite possible some kind of the Russian team will still be allowed to compete, that there is too little time left to act.
Only nine nations have missed an entire Olympics because they have been suspended from the IOC, and a handful of others have been punished in between Games. Germany, Austria, Turkey, Hungary, and Japan were banned because they were deemed to be aggressors in the two world wars. The other four were South Africa, Rhodesia, North Korea and Afghanistan. The IOC is not an easy club to get kicked out of. And the matter is built more confusing by Russias dissembling, their admissions of limited culpability and accusations against other countries. And it is true that, for example, Kenya are also under investigation by the IAAF.
However, the McLaren report procured, beyond reasonable doubt, evidence of Russian cover-ups disappearing positives in 22 of the 28 athletics that will be contested in Rio this summer. From athletics to wrestling, through basketball, beach volleyball, boxing, canoeing, cycling, fencing, handball, judo, football, modern pentathlon, rowing, sailing, shooting, swimming, table tennis, triathlon, taekwondo, volleyball, water polo, and weightlifting. And this, McLaren emphasized, was only a slice of what is going on , not the total painting. After such knowledge, what forgiveness?
If Russian athletes are allowed to compete in Rio under their own flag the credibility gap that has afflicted the Olympics and its constituent athletics for so long will grow impassibly large.
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