TO BAN OR NOT TO BAN

The International Olympic Committee is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place as it comes to its decision on the potential Russian Olympic ban for Rio 2016.  It’s one thing for the U.S. to lead a multi-nation boycott of the Moscow Games in 1980, and for the Soviet Union to reciprocate four years later in L.A. But it is quite another for the IOC itself to say, you’re out, because who knows what may come from that?

Yet the likelihood of just such a decision was given impetus today when the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) upheld the IAAF banishment of 68 Russian track and field athletes not implicated in a state-supported doping program uncovered in a series of independent investigations. The International Olympic Committee said earlier this week that it would use Thursday’s CAS ruling as a guideline on a total Russian Olympic banishment from Rio.

There is no easy solution here, and the IOC is trying to thread the needle between who it is and who it was, between just desserts and just money (cynical me). In a last ditch move Russian President Vladimir Putin entered the scrum yesterday.

‘Now we’re observing a dangerous relapse into the interference of politics in sport,” he said in a statement.  “Yes, the form of that interference has changed but the essence is the same, to make sport an instrument of geopolitical pressure and the formation of a negative image of countries and peoples.  The Olympic movement, which plays a colossal unifying role for humanity, could again wind up on the edge of schism.”

Really?  The old KGB operative is interested in a unifying movement?  Who knows. His recent annexation of Crimea sure unified some folks. But there is certainly no self-reflection about the mind-numbing corruption in his Sports Ministry, just indignity once they’ve been caught.

There are so many competing interests at play here. From a purely moral standpoint banning the entire Russian Olympic team for their uber-cynical doping program in Sochi 2014 and beyond seems like a no-brainer. Come on, let the punishment fit the crime.

But who amongst nations is innocent?  One would have thought, too, that some executives involved in the financial collapse of 2008 might have been brought before the bar and their institutions appropriately down-sized to avoid another such meltdown in the future. Yet as we soon found out too-big-to-fail meant just that. So how much weight does Russia still have left to push back with? 

Like the Zika virus infecting Rio de Janeiro, what was once just an athletics’ problem has spread to the Olympic movement as a whole.  Remember, what began as a high-minded movement to better international relations has long since turned into a bloated cash-cow for all but the athletes. Today, the IOC has so great a financial stake at play it is loath to ban the entire Russian team for fear of losing its international sponsors who are buying into the whole Olympic kumbaya ethic, no matter how hollow that may be in itself.

The very essence of the Olympic Games is fair play bringing nations together. Article 2 chapter 1 of the Olympic charter says, “the mission of the IOC…includes upholding ethics in sports…protecting the Olympic movement, and encouraging and supporting the development of sport.”

Ethics is at the top of the list! What Russia did was in direct contravention of the Olympic charter.   But with so many billions of dollars involved in advertising and television rights, a political death match with one of the world’s great nations threatens the stability of the Olympic movement itself.  That is why the IOC is trying to line up all the dominoes ahead of time so once the falling begins, things tumble in a predictable order.

In light of all the evidence, and now a definitive ruling by the CAS, for the IOC not to uphold a ban would be a total capitulation in the face of the its founding principles and purpose.  But in this world of unending relativity, there are some who don’t believe such things still animate institutions anymore.  At some point money talks and everything else walks –  or, in this case, swims, lifts and wrestles.

So let’s just see how seriously the IOC takes its own precepts as it deals with its damned-if-you-do, damned-even-more-if-you-don’t identity crisis.

END

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