Full Olympic ban on Russia never had a chance
Legal, marketing issues may have played role in IOC's decision
By Jamie Strashin, CBC Sports
In the wake of the latest investigation into widespread doping by Russian athletes, many reached what they thought was an obvious conclusion: the traditional athletic superpower would be sidelined for the Rio Olympics because of its numerous, grievous and brazen violations.
If you read Richard McLaren's damning report on Russia's government-supported cheating, anything less in terms of punishment would be absurd, right?
Not so fast. Though the International Olympic Committee was roundly criticized for its decision to stop short of such a move, a full ban on Russia's Olympic team would have been problematic on a number of fronts.
For one, a blanket ban on Russian athletes would likely have been derailed by numerous legal hurdles. The Court of Arbitration for Sport, among others, would likely overturn a universal ban that included athletes who haven't been implicated in doping.
"We were mindful of the need for justice for clean athletes," IOC vice-president John Coates told reporters. "We did not want to penalize athletes who are clean with a collective ban and, therefore, keeping them out of the Games."
Instead, the IOC opted to punt the decision on whether to allow Russian athletes to compete to the 28 federations that govern summer Olympic sports. Those federations are reviewing Russian athletes' records and deciding who can compete in Rio next month. Some, like swimming and canoe/kayak, have already issued their decisions.
It was a wise move by the IOC, says Canadian lawyer Leanne Standryk, who specializes in sports law.
"A blanket ban would not have been upheld," she says, noting that McLaren wasn't mandated to determine whether a full ban would best deal with the systematic issue of Russian doping. He was simply commissioned to investigate allegations made by Russian whistleblowers.
"From a legal perspective, the IOC is required to ensure that it upholds the principles of natural justice and procedural fairness," Standryk says. "In Canada and in most common law jurisdictions, the principles are in part depended upon to maintain public confidence in our legal system.
Presumption of guilt
It's no different in the context of sports law, where the concept of fair play applies, says Standryk. McLaren's report does not directly name any athletes and does not link specific evidence to individual athletes. At a basic level, Standryk says, Russian athletes have no knowledge of the actual case against them, nor any chance to present any evidence on behalf of themselves.
"The blanket ban would presume that all Russian athletes were guilty of a doping violation. This is contrary to the notion of natural justice," Standryk says. "The IOC, rather than declining to make a decision, as has been reported, sought to balance the competing interests, including the right to protect clean athletes and the integrity of the sport."
Even without an all-out ban, the IOC decision may not stand up. There is already debate around the ruling that any Russian athlete who has ever served a doping suspension will be barred from competing in Rio. This is more punitive than the World Anti-Doping Code, which usually allows athletes to return to competition after serving a suspension.
'You need strong competition'
Legal reasons aside, other factors may have influenced the IOC's decision.
Perhaps, for instance, the organization decided that Russia is too important to the Olympics to be sidelined. Fans, television networks and sponsors may talk about integrity and doing the right thing, but in the end, many of them just want to see the most compelling event possible.
"At the end of the day, [Olympic partners] want really good performances," says Cheri Bradish, an Olympic marketing expert who teaches at Ryerson University in Toronto. "Once the Games start, the focus is on the field of play. For the partners, they want to ensure the best athletes are there. "
In the United States especially, a residual Cold War rivalry still exists. The idea of an American beating a Russian athlete (as opposed to, say, a Canadian) makes for a better story and more exciting television.
And leave it to a Russian athlete to remind the world that the Olympics just wouldn't be the same without them.
"How can a country win and consider itself a full Olympic champion now?" asked modern pentathlete Aleksander Lesun, who is allowed to compete in Rio while two of his teammates who have been implicated in doping are not. "They're weak countries and weak athletes.
"You need strong competition for it to count."