The Winter Olympic Games is an event viewed as the pinnacle of sporting excellence; with the elite of the elite competing in sports practiced on snow and ice.
The Games is a target that every athlete works tirelessly towards, both for the honour of representing their nation in a global competition and the opportunity to test themselves against the best. Since 1924, when the first Winter Olympics was held in Chamonix, France, the Games have inspired athletes across the world to challenge themselves to compete at the highest possible level and to earn themselves a place on the world-famous podium.
In the build-up to the 2018 PyeongChang Games, there has been major controversy surrounding the uncovering of state-wide doping programmes under taken by the Russian government for both their Summer and Winter Olympic and Paralympic athletes.
On the eve of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, there are still major question marks surrounding the involvement of certain athletes and the impact this will have on the competition. Russia have had more than 1,000 athletes, in various sports, benefit from a state-wide doping scheme; with 51 medals being stripped from athletes following their doping violations - the most for any country.
On 5th December 2017, the IOC announced that the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) had been suspended from the 2018 Winter Olympics with immediate effect. However, Russian athletes who had no previous drug convictions or violations would be allowed to compete under the Olympic Flag as an Olympic Athlete from Russia. These athletes would be categorised as ANA; Authorised Neutral Athletes, and would compete in the Games as individuals.
Since the announcement, and President Putin’s statement that the Russian government would not prevent athletes from competing in the games as individuals, there has been much debate surrounding the decision to allow any Russian athlete into the 2018 Winter Olympics.
The Olympic and Paralympic Games are underpinned by their values of Friendship, Respect, Excellence, Determination, Inspiration, Courage and Equality. When you consider these values and what they stand for, we can begin to understand the rationale behind the IOC’s decision to allow those athletes, that without evidence to the contrary are clean, entry into the Games. After all it would be inconsistent with the Olympic spirit if they were to bracket all Russian athletes into one category.
The Games is a symbol that inspires athletes to work hard and push themselves to be the best that they can be. The IOC created the Olympic motto of: Citius, Altius, Fortius; Latin for Faster, Higher, Stronger which embodies this notion of excellence. However, it is quite clear to see how over the years this motto has become blurred and replaced with an obsession of athletes winning at all costs. With a number of high profile athletes and now the Russian Government being embroiled in doping violations, it emphasises this issue and creates uncertainty surrounding the legitimacy of the respect, determination, courage and excellence that we witness during the Games.
Barry Svluga of the Washington Post, makes a valid point surrounding the inclusion of independent Russian athletes. Not only does he suggest it is becoming increasingly more difficult to determine which athletes are clean and adhering to the Olympic values, but the exclusion of the ROC from the Winter Olympics raises further questions surrounding what/who those Russian athletes are representing. With the Russian national flag, anthem and uniform banned from the competition and medal presentations, what will happen to the overall standings and athlete world ranking should an independent Russian win a medal?
There is no denying that this is a very broad and complex topic to examine, which could have numerous knock on effects. There are multiple outcomes and debates that we can dissect from this. However, the one that stands out is – Ultimately, how do the IOC maintain and balance their values of protecting the clean athletes of other competing nations from the doping scandal, whilst also not discriminating against those Russian athletes who have not tested positive.
The underlying issue for the IOC surrounds the complexity of the drug testing programme. In order to instil confidence that athletes are competing in a ‘clean’ Games, this issue needs to be addressed. You only need look at the Lance Armstrong case to understand how drug cheats seem always to be ahead of the game. Armstrong was the most famous, successful and also one of the most highly-scrutinized cyclists in the world. Yet he repeatedly passed drug tests whilst actively doping. In fact, the only reason Armstrong was caught was due to numerous witnesses coming forward and breaking their silence.
Armstrong, alongside Russia, not only highlights the difficulty of employing adequate drug testing practices, but also highlights the argument that additional support is needed for independent doping organisations such as WADA.
WADA is composed and funded equally by the sporting movement and the national governments of the world; with their funding decided by the International Intergovernmental Consultative Group on Anti-Doping in Sport (IICGADS). This group is made up of public authorities from around the world who in November 2000 agreed to fund 50% of WADA’s budget. The Olympic Movement has a policy of making payments to WADA but only when the national government make their payments; matching this dollar for dollar.
According to an article on 1st February 2018 by Inside the Games, WADA believes that extra funding is what is necessary to fulfil the tasks they have been assigned and the money would help to pay for increased monitoring, intelligence and investigations. WADA is hoping to secure a 50% increase on their current budget to take them to around £32 million by 2021. However, this is reliant on public authorities being willing to accept annual increments of 15% in both 2019 and 2020, and a further 5% in 2021.
It has also been reported since 2016 that the IOC would boost funding for WADA, but there has since been no further detail on this additional funding.
If we are to move forward and instil confidence that the excellence and success we are witnessing during an Olympic Games is being achieved on a fair and level playing field, it is clear that the IOC, International Federations and WADA need to work much closer to address this issue.
Mistakes have been made to the extent that the doping scandals have now dominated the build-up to the 2018 Winter Olympics. One can only imagine that continued stories of widespread doping will come to damage the image of the Olympics and potentially begin to impact the commerciality of the Games for host cities and the IOC. Without a strong position on doping and significant sanctions being imposed and carried through, we can only expect cheats to continue to use performance enhancing drugs, which can only lead to further tarnishing of the Olympic legacy.