Sunday - May 22nd 2016

How do we solve a problem like the Russians?

As New Zealanders we are generally committed to ‘doing the right thing’. We don’t like cheating and corruption and our society is relatively free of it. This is one of the main reasons we should be confident in our athletes as most of them have the same mind-set. Another reason is that Drug Free Sport NZ (DFSNZ) is also committed to doing the right thing – we abhor cheating and will do what we can to root it out whether it’s a club level athlete selling drugs or an Olympian who is doping.

Our Kiwi athletes have always known that when they compete internationally, not all of their competitors will have the same mind-set or be subject to the work of a determined national anti-doping organisation. Their response is generally to suck it up and just take greater satisfaction in beating the cheats – not ideal, but the way it has to be.

But what is being progressively revealed about the commitment of Russian athletes and, seemingly, ‘Russia’ to winning through cheating adds a whole new dimension to the problem. It’s one thing to try to beat an individual doper but it’s another to try and beat an athlete who has a state-sponsored system to support the doping. At this point the claims of the former Moscow laboratory head, that samples at the Sochi Olympics were substituted in the middle of the night via a hole in the wall, are not proven and seem more like a spy novelist’s invention. But the way they fit into the wider picture of the Russian environment which was painted by the WADA Independent Commission, and the excellent work of the journalist Hajo Seppelt, makes them more than plausible.

This is the most fundamental betrayal of all that sport should stand for and a quick and decisive response must occur if clean athletes are to be protected and the essential merit of sport preserved. While there is a legitimate argument that a ban on Russia may penalise some clean athletes the more forceful argument is that if this type of gross breach of faith is not penalised heavily we have little hope of holding the line against not just doping but a whole raft of challenges to sporting integrity. It is almost certainly true that comparable activities are occurring in other countries and ideally they should also receive the same scrutiny. However it is only possible to act on evidence we have. The other countries may be lucky to get the warning and an opportunity to change their practices and hopefully their understanding of what sport is about. 

Russia can not be allowed to use the Lance Armstrong defence – ‘sure I did it but so was everyone else, so give me a break’. WADA must follow up urgently to assess the authenticity of these claims. While many of us already believe that there is sufficient evidence to ensure Russia’s exclusion from the Rio Olympics in August, verification of these allegations would surely be the ‘final nail’. Athletes who have a momentary lack of judgement can be excluded for four years. It cannot be right that a country which sets out to systematically and grossly defeat the anti-doping rules (coercing their athletes to comply at the same time) can be given a few months to apply a veneer of respectability and be immediately invited back.

It is for the International Olympic Committee to decide whether or not their espousal of the primacy of Olympic values and ideals is real or the need to placate powerful countries trumps that. 

Graeme Steel, CEO Drug Free Sport NZ