On Monday the World Anti-Doping Agency unanimously voted to “ban” Russia from major international sporting events for the next four years, including the Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Despite the tough talk and self-congratulatory rhetoric accompanying the announcement, WADA’s ruling is a gift to the Kremlin and a slap in the face to clean athletes. It is the latest example of a failed global anti-doping system that continues to be exploited by corrupt foreign powers for political gain.
On the final day of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, I watched three Russian skiers leave me and all the other athletes in the dust on their way to sweeping the podium in the 50km cross-country ski race; their speed after nearly two hours of competition seemed superhuman. As we later found out, it was.
That night, the podium presentation was part of the closing ceremonies and three Russian flags were raised to honor the athletes. It was a show of Russian dominance in front of President Vladimir Putin and the world. Riding the wave of strength and goodwill generated by the Olympics, Russia annexed Crimea four days later.
After the institutionalized doping in Sochi was exposed, WADA “banned” Russia from the 2018 Olympics. However, 168 Russian athletes were still allowed to compete, virtually the same number that competed in Vancouver 2010 when Russia was “compliant” with the World Anti-Doping Code.
I raced in Pyeongchang against the “Olympic Athletes from Russia.” The designation, designed as punishment, only increased the pride and nationalism felt by Russian athletes and fans. The Russian propaganda machine decried the label as an unjust attack based on unfounded allegations of doping (despite the myriad of evidence laid out in WADA’s Independent Person Report). They claimed that Russia was a victim of a Western conspiracy and they celebrated Russian victories as heroic feats achieved in spite of the ostracization.
Six months after the final event in Pyeongchang, WADA welcomed Russia back into the Olympic fold despite the fact that the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, known as RUSADA, had not handed over data from the Moscow Laboratory, a condition of WADA’s Roadmap to Code Compliance published a year earlier. As we now know thanks to WADA’s Nov. 20 Report on the Moscow Data, RUSADA was stalling until they figured out a way to hack the servers and manipulate the results of dozens of anti-doping tests.
Monday’s vote to deem RUSADA noncompliant and ban Russian administrators and the Russian flag from international competitions for the next four years is a response to the manipulation of the Moscow data, but it is really one more move in a game of cat-and-mouse that Russia plays with every intergovernmental organization working to establish international order. Russia breaks the rules and corrupts the system and then claims unfair treatment and victimization.
WADA had the option this week to say “no more.” They could have banned Russia and its athletes from all global sporting events for the next four years. They could have said enough corruption, enough mockery, enough manipulation. If you’re not going to compete by the rules, you don’t get to compete at all. Instead, they played into Putin’s hands by allowing him to claim that Russia is a target of western crusaders, all while his athletes continue to compete and win in Olympic sport.
As for the U.S., it is time for us to wake up to the reality that international sport is not an apolitical dreamland; it is a foreign policy tool dominated by America’s adversaries. The same democratic values that are under attack by disinformation campaigns and election meddling are under attack by comprehensive state-sponsored doping programs that flaunt the rule of law.
In October, the House of Representatives took a step towards recognizing the harm done to American interests in the international sports arena by unanimously passing the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act, a bill that will finally criminalize international doping conspiracies and give federal law enforcement the tools to tamp down on corruption. WADA’s latest failure must be the catalyst for the Senate to take up the bill as well.
I believe in the power of sport to be a unifying force. I watched the North Korean pair compete in figure skating in Pyeongchang, South Korea and marveled that the two nations, at war with each other, could set aside their differences to showcase human achievement. If we stand up for our values and the integrity of competition, we can counter corruption, demonstrate the power of the rule of law, and realize the potential of sport.
Noah Hoffman, is a two-time Olympic cross-country skier who lives and trains in Park City.