Commentary

Olympics: Russia no angel but doping crisis goes much deeper

The entrance to the building of the Russian Olympic Committee in Moscow, Russia.
The entrance to the building of the Russian Olympic Committee in Moscow, Russia.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) deserves no great congratulations for what can only be termed its moral entrepreneurship in sanctioning Russia.

The IOC and World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) remain a harrumphing, selectively enforcing, self-dealing intentional failure of a bureaucracy that couldn't even plug a mouse-hole in the Sochi drug testing lab, for the simple reason that it didn't want to. We still wouldn't know of that hole's existence if not for whistle-blower Grigory Rodchenkov.

All the IOC has really done is ban a song and a swathe of fabric from Pyeongchang, and unfairly stigmatise Russian athletes along the way. The Russian flag will not fly and the anthem will not be played in a Winter Olympics no one is much interested in.

Russian athletes may compete under a neutral flag if individually approved (the IOC essentially managed to approve no fewer than 278 for the Summer Games in Rio), and various "officials and support staff" will be welcome at the IOC's discreet invitation.

Also the Russian Olympic Committee from Pyeongchang may be allowed back by the closing ceremonies. Exactly how this will chasten Vladimir Putin and his Sochi ski buddies is unclear.

It would be pleasant to think this will deter all of the other IOC state actors who have systematically participated in performance enhancement or turned a blind eye to it (large portions of the US apparatus over the years included), but that's highly unlikely.

If the IOC had really wanted to discourage "state-sponsored" doping, it would not have awarded an Olympics to a state that practically invented it.

Here is when you will know the IOC is serious about doping: when it knocks down and razes Wada for the pocket-lining bureaucracy that it is, and starts clean. Really clean.

You will know the IOC is serious on this subject when it declares a blanket temporary amnesty for the purpose of studying some very hard questions. Such as: Have the effects of certain substances been overstated or overcriminalised? To what extent, if any, might legalisation actually relieve the pressure on athletes in state-sponsored systems? Are these public condemnations doing any good, or are they just resulting in failed policy and cover-ups?

The IOC's official anti-doping effort was launched in 1999, and it has yet to act as a meaningful deterrent. Instead, it has merely created a moral panic. And moral panics are worse than ineffectual; they result in greater evils than the original sin.

Prohibition was one example. The xenophobic Victorian amateur code was another. But moral panics do serve one group well: the moral entrepreneurs who gain power and profit off them.

So long as the IOC and Wada insist that doping is a global moral crisis and create occasional villains, they can continue to command huge resources to "police" it.

The IOC's official anti-doping effort was launched in 1999, and it has yet to act as a meaningful deterrent. Instead, it has merely created a moral panic. And moral panics are worse than ineffectual; they result in greater evils than the original sin.

It is interesting to note that Wada president Craig Reedie has been campaigning energetically for a massive budget expansion, even lobbying that Wada should get a cut of Olympic TV rights and sponsorships.

The hallmarks of moral panics are disproportionality, exaggeration, stereotyping, and rushes to convenient judgments.

Russia is merely the latest arch-villain in our long-running moral panic over performance enhancement. To be sure, state pressure on athletes to perform is an issue that should make us all wince, and ask, what can we do about it? But the answer is not nearly as simple as the IOC would have you think, and it's certainly not resolved by the banning of a song or a flag while stigmatising fellow humans as "dirty".

Is the Russian Olympic Committee really worse or dirtier than any number of other state actors in the Olympic movement? Is it any more or less reprehensible than a United States Olympic Committee that was wilfully blind to an epidemic of sexual abuse, in which scores of young athletes felt coerced by authorities into working with rampant serial paedophiles? Now there is something worthy of banning a flag over.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 07, 2017, with the headline 'Russia no angel but doping crisis goes much deeper'. Print Edition | Subscribe