Leaking pipes, electrical problems and stopped up toilets found at the Rio Olympic athletes village by early arriving Aussies seem a perfect metaphor for the state of the Olympic movement in the summer of 2016. Today, just two weeks before the Games are scheduled to begin, the International Olympic Committee took the cowards way out in dealing with the Russian state-supported doping scandal by deciding not to issue a blanket ban on the entire Russian Olympic team.
“We had to balance the collective responsibility and the individual justice to which every human being and athlete is entitled to,” said IOC President Thomas Bach.
The IOC pronouncement was made despite a Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling last week upholding the IAAF ban on the Russian track and field team, which the IOC said they would use as a guideline in their larger decision.
Thus, rather than proof of a state-supported doping program across a wide spectrum of both winter and summer Olympic sports leading to serious consequences, the IOC went all wobbly in their moment of crisis management. Instead of issuing a ban themselves, the IOC said it will leave the decision up to the individual sports federations, while at the same time placing a thumb on the scales by declaring the “presumption of innocence” cannot be applied to Russian athletes in any of the 28 Summer Olympics sports.
This muddled, middle-ground decision seems intended specifically to assuage Russian President Vladimir Putin who had intimated repercussions if a total ban was handed down. It also calms the IOC’s international sponsors for whom scandal is the ultimate deal breaker. By pushing the responsibility down to the individual sports’ federations, the IOC is using Pilate’s sink to wash its hands of any political responsibility and potential retribution.
Nobody should be surprised by this weak-kneed declaration. As was expected – and as was seen after the global economic meltdown of 2008 when financial institutions who caused the collapse were bailed out by taxpayer dollars – too-big-to-fail trumps honesty and integrity. The Russians have poured tens of millions into the Olympic movement, leaving the IOC compromised as an adjudicator in cases involving them.
What the IOC fears is a potential ripple effect to a total Russian ban. Not only would Putin look to stage a Goodwill-type Games to replace the Olympics for his athletes, just like Ted Turner did after the American boycott of Moscow in 1980, but he might also have looked to organize other nations in a last-minute boycott. What’s more, with scandal comes the chance that international corporate sponsors find other less threatening venues to spend their advertising dollars.
Taken together, there is too much to lose for as ephemeral a goal as integrity and ethical behavior. Chalk up another gold medal win for cynicism, moral relativism and institutional blight. Let the Games begin. Wonder who is going to read the Olympic oath at the opening ceremonies, maybe the plumber?