It's not too late to save the Olympics
Russian doping scandal exposes toxic, win-at-all-costs culture
Should we be surprised that a growing number of people are cynical about the Olympics? Not for a second.
Russia has been nabbed as a flagrant and systemic cheater on the world's greatest stage. The country's doping scandal, which resulted this week in a ban from the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, is the product of a culture that increasingly rewards a perverted vision of what the Olympics are supposed to be about.
Russia conceived of hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi as part of an elaborate vanity project. More than $50 billion were spent. A kind of Disneyland for sport, with grandiose stadiums, was erected in a place where next to no winter sports tradition existed.
With a view to letting the politicians puff out their chests and strut their stuff, national pride hijacked the whole deal.
The Russian leaders came to believe that they had to win the most medals at home in order to make up for a sub-par performance in Vancouver in 2010. They stoked the propaganda machine so as to justify the expense of the Games to the people. They had to prove just how powerful Russia is and that their sporting system is the envy of the planet.
How best to ensure that success? Cheat. Russia would win at all costs.
Not what the Olympics are about
That's what's most disturbing about this whole mess. Winning has become the most important thing about the Olympics, and an increasing number of countries are subscribing to that reality.
But where in the Olympic charter does it say anything about a prize being awarded to the country that claims the most medals? How and when was it decreed that the Olympics are meant to revitalize the economic fortunes of the host nation? Why are lavish stadiums built in unlikely places considered an enviable legacy? When did the success of a country's sports system become the measure of the people who live there?
These things are not what the Olympics are meant to be about.
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And by allowing this narrative to flourish, while hesitating in dealing with the monster of doping, the International Olympic Committee came dangerously close to putting the future of the Games in peril.
The number of cynics was allowed to multiply.
"I was surprised that they did it," Dale Henwood, president and CEO of Canadian Sports Institute Calgary, says of the IOC ban on Russia.
"It's a step in the right direction, but there's a long way to go. If they're willing to institutionalize doping, what else would they do to cheat? And what other countries are doing similar kinds of things? We have some real integrity issues in sport. Sport is not in a state of health. It's not good."
Long an advocate for clean sport and widely respected for his ethical approach to high performance, Henwood worries that this latest crisis and its temporary resolution is just one battle to be won as sport and the Olympics struggle to reclaim the general public's faith.
He cites the abuse of female gymnasts in the United States, the ongoing threat of concussions, the widespread corruption that has plagued sports' governing bodies and the increased emphasis on producing medals as factors in a skewed sense of values on the part of sports leaders.
"Sport has a real troubled agenda right now," he says. "The public cares about medals won, but only for a little while. More and more, they care about the kinds of champions that are produced in the process. The process of pursuing excellence is what is truly important."
This should be the only purpose of the Olympic Games — following the path of human achievement in an honourable and peaceful way.
By acting definitively in the face of systemic doping on the part of the Russian sports system, the IOC has, at long last, chosen the road less travelled — but the right road nevertheless.
It has finally arrived at the conclusion that winning at all costs is not winning at all. In fact, it flies in the face of the Olympic ideal.
This measure taken by the IOC is long overdue, but not too late. Russia may be reeling, but the Games themselves can recover. Excellence with honour is still possible.
"We should all want to see our athletes win gold medals," Henwood says. "But in the process we want to produce champions who contribute to the community, who are responsible citizens and leading lights full of integrity. This is critical."
This is where the Russian sports leaders went wrong.
And in the end, even Vladimir Putin seems to have admitted as much. By announcing he would not prevent Russian athletes who the IOC considers to be clean from competing at February's Winter Olympics, Putin signalled that the Olympics are ultimately about the competitors and not the country.
Russia made the grave mistake of letting runaway national pride poison the Games. In the process, its political leaders allowed the ultimate transgression to threaten the Olympic ideal. Thankfully, they were exposed and not able to escape the shame of it.
The Olympics will go on without them.