We Can’t Know If Russian Olympians Are Actually Clean

Three hundred eighty-nine athletes were provisionally approved by the IOC. How? We don’t know.


Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

When the 2014 Sochi Olympics concluded, Russia topped the medals table. But an investigation later led to thirteen athletes being stripped of their medals, with a total of 43 athletes from that nation retrospectively disqualified and suspended for life. The sanctions extended in November 2017, with the official Russian Federation delegation being banned from the games. Demonstrably clean individual athletes were welcome to attend.

On Friday, however, the International Olympic Committee, or IOC, made a stunning announcement: Of the 500 athletes submitted by Russia, 389 were provisionally approved by the Invitation Review Panel to compete “neutrally” at the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Some of these athletes face additional testing or re-analysis of previous samples. More likely than not, Russia will have a large contingent representing the country despite these sanctions. Russia entered 214 athletes for Sochi in 2014; if they are allowed to fill their quota for 2018, they could have as many as 213 slots; observers suggest that 200 is a likely number.

Since the last Winter Games, whistleblowers and multiple investigations have revealed that Russia has had a systematic, coordinated program to dope its athletes for many years. At Sochi, contaminated urine samples were exchanged for clean ones through a concealed hole in the testing lab’s wall. Russia’s state security service, the FSB, figured out how to remove and replace the lids of supposedly tamper-proof sample bottles.

So what do we do about Russian athletes who want to compete in the 2018 Winter Games?

The point of all Olympic events is to provide athletes a fair opportunity to succeed based on their natural talents and dedication. The Olympic movement has decreed that doping is a form of cheating because it undermines the relationship between talent, dedication, and success. So-called “athletes” who boost their performance with anabolic steroids, erythropoietin, or other drugs may post a faster time, leap higher, lift more, or throw farther than more talented and harder working ones.

But such shortcuts undermine the games. Russian athletes weren’t the only ones who doped, but the scale and scope of Russia’s doping conspiracy at Sochi set a noxious Olympic record, and that meant denying success to more deserving athletes.

While it’s true that Russian competitors will wear uniforms identifying them as “Olympic Athlete from Russia,” and won’t have their national flag flown or anthem played should they win a medal, it seems like a light punishment. Olympians competing against these athletes in Pyeongchang are probably more worried about undetected doping than symbolic trappings, however.

To further complicate matters, the IOC has not disclosed the criteria it used to determine which Russian athletes are “clean.” The criteria proposed by the organization of national anti-doping authorities are an excellent guide for what should be required. The standards include no less than 12 months of testing by trustworthy labs, no history of doping or associating with coaches known to condone doping, and a “biological passport.” The “passport” is used to detect doping when an athlete’s physiological measures veer from expected patterns. On January 17, a summit of 19 national anti-doping authorities including Canada, Japan, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States criticized the IOC for failing to establish “clear criteria and a transparent process.”

Do such stringent criteria violate the principle that a person should be presumed innocent until proven guilty? Remember, this is not a criminal prosecution where the freedom of the accused is at stake. Instead, the goal should be to stage a fair and meaningful competition that protects all athletes from having to compete against those using performance enhancing drugs. Failing to exclude doping athletes is grossly unfair to all athletes who don’t cheat.

That requires a rigorous and trustworthy system of drug testing and enforcement, something long lacking in Russia. Unfortunately, but the experience in Sochi puts all Russian athletes under a cloud of suspicion. Jack Robertson, former Chief Investigator for the World Anti-Doping Agency, claims that 99 percent of Russian national team members in Sochi doped. Four years after Sochi, the Russian Olympic movement has yet to acknowledge the powerful findings detailed in the authoritative reports by Richard McLaren. Neither has Russia provided access to the samples and data at its Moscow laboratory.

In a recent event in Siberia, 36 athletes abruptly withdrew when Russia’s anti-doping agency showed up unexpectedly. This suggests two things: that widespread doping likely continues; but also that the anti-doping effort in Russia may now have a pulse.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

The massive, well-coordinated systemic doping in Russia means that we cannot be confident that any athlete from there is clean without clear and compelling evidence. Until the IOC reveals its criteria and process in detail, athletes from other nations have good reason to be concerned. The criteria must be clearly articulated and made public. The process must be transparent and shielded against improper influence. Clean athletes deserve nothing less.