SPORTING LIFE

Clean Russian athletes deserve their chance too

Silver, 100m. Silver, 200m. Every time Australia's Raelene Boyle sprinted down a track at the 1972 Olympics she came second. Every time an East German, from a system later revealed as corrupt, came first. In the 200m, Boyle lost by .05 of a second and later she told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: "For a long time I resented the fact that I was beaten by somebody who was cheating."

In all the recent reports, the investigations, the lies, the cover-ups, the whistle-blowers, this is what we can't forget. To be cheated into second place alters lives. It allows you no celebrations. It affects your future earnings and dilutes your fame. It scoffs at your honest labour and steals your moment.

Cheating makes a mockery of record books, for these numbers which stand for humankind's progress are often proof only of humankind's great leap forward in chemistry. There are, for instance, world records in women's track still standing from 1983, 1984 and 1985.

Believe them if you will.

And so the IOC, the wimps, should have banned Russia from the Games, right? If you read independent investigator Richard McLaren's report which states that "The Ministry of Sport directed, controlled and oversaw the manipulation of athletes' analytical results or sample swopping, with the active participation and assistance of the FSB (the Federal Security Service), CSP (Centre of Sports Preparation of National Teams), and both Moscow and Sochi laboratories," even you might vote for a ban.

I don't like the fact that Russian officials will be gleeful, for they deserve sanctions and our contempt. But I like the truth that clean Russian athletes will have a chance to take their sacrifice to the Olympics. This Games is theirs too.

Except for this. What about the other clean athletes? The Russian ones? Let's presume in a population of more than 140 million there are Russian athletes who don't cheat. One, two, 20, 100. Do we sacrifice them to set an example, a sort of sporting collateral damage in pursuit of some higher goal (collateral damage is never as powerful an argument when it includes your own people)? Should we damn their effort because they're guilty by suspicion?

There's no defending corrupt Russian officials or shielding a rotten system, but other nations must shrug off their piety and ask: If their officials indulged in widespread doping would they ask that all their own athletes be banned? Yes?

Believe that if you will.

Nobility expired a long while ago in sport, long before Ben Johnson flashed across the 100m finish line. Asian stars take drugs, but only inadvertently of course. Kenyan cheats have destroyed a lovely myth. Lance Armstrong took us on a ride we haven't yet recovered from. Those Olympic rings don't just present a world united but everyone hand in hand when it comes to chicanery.

Most sport has become too important and there's no going back. High positions on medal tables have become an over-flourished badge of honour. Nationalism at Games can be shrill and nations sound like a congregation of Trumps. Fair play in all this reminds one of what Mahatma Gandhi said about Western civilisation: "I think it's a good idea."

Hosting sports events is an expensive party and medals are a necessary return. Anyway, who can afford to alienate Russia, which with the 2014 Winter Games and 2018 World Cup football seems eager to pay any bill? You may think all this has nothing to do with being spared the ban.

Believe that if you will.

The IOC anyway was never going to disinvite Russia, for almost no one gets barred from the Games unless they start world wars. They take unity seriously and so everyone gets an invite. If protection of human rights was a qualification, we'd have a smaller Games. Once North Korea even walked out with South Korea, which didn't change the world but for two weeks we thought these Olympic people were terrific.

It's kind of nice that there's still a place where the barefoot and gold-spike wearers, right-wingers and lefties, fundamentalists and atheists, Buddhists and Mormons, come together and eat in the same room and use the same condom machines and try to beat each other peacefully. It makes you smile. Except when they cheat, for it undermines the whole idea.

There's no easy answer to drugs but it's the IOC's job to manage tough questions. I don't agree with a ban but I would have been impressed if the IOC had the nerve to enforce one. I don't like the fact that Russian officials will be gleeful, for they deserve sanctions and our contempt. But I like the truth that clean Russian athletes will have a chance to go to Rio. These Games are theirs too.

Of course there will be cheats and as spectators, the only true innocents at a Games, we're used to that now. Retests of urine samples of athletes from Beijing 2008 and London 2012 are showing up positive and we just shrug. The same will happen in Brazil, where we will applaud the beautiful and later occasionally wonder if it is counterfeit. In the end, we only believe what we will.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 26, 2016, with the headline 'Clean Russian athletes deserve their chance too'. Print Edition | Subscribe