The Tarnishing Of The Olympics? Blame It On Rio
Philip Henslowe: Strangely enough, it all turns out well.
Hugh Fennyman: How?
Philip Henslowe: I don't know. It's a mystery.
— Shakespeare In Love
The lines from the 1989 Oscar winner pretty much sum up the typical approach to an Olympic Games. In the years before the event, disaster is widely predicted. Pollution, terrorism, rampant drug use, political upheaval, climate eruptions— all have been predicted for the Games over the decades.
Then, somehow, it all turns out well. How? It’s a mystery.
But with the Rio Summer Games just days away, there is a strange unease, a sense that the mystery element may not save this first foray by the International Olympic Committee into South America.
The greatest storm cloud is the implosion of the Russian Olympic team over its rampant use of performance enhancing drugs. Based on information from whistle blowers, the IOC uncovered a systematic program of doping that was directed by the highest echelons of the Russian Olympic program and its government.
The first casualty was the Russian track team, which was suspended from Rio by the IOC for its use of PEDs. Tennis star Maria Sharapova was also suspended for her use of meldonium. A number of Russian officials have also been told they are not welcome in Brazil. This past weekend there were reports that the entire Russian Olympic team— almost 400 athletes— would be suspended at well.
Eventually, the IOC announced on Sunday that it would leave eligibility to the individual sports bodies to determine which Russian athletes could compete. In other words, they passed the buck. After all, being seen to suspend the entire Russian team would not be conducive to business with the Russian TV networks in future Games. It would be the sports federations wearing the bad guy’s hat,
Perversely, Yulia Stepanova— the woman who blew the whistle on the track team’s scandal— was told she couldn’t compete under a neutral flag, ending her hope of a medal.
The World Anti Doping Agency was not pleased by the equivocating stance of the IOC. Travis Tygart of the U.S. anti-doping agencysummed up the disappointment. “The decision regarding the Russians participating, and the confusing mess left in its wake, is a significant blow to the rights of clean athletes.”
While the IOC said it erred on the side of due process, claiming it could not conduct a fair examination of other federations in time for the Games, virtually no one outside Russia disputed the facts. The Russians had conspired to pass off false samples, disguise results, defy officials and cover up what was a comprehensive and far-reaching program. There were stories of secret caches in walls to house clean samples and the intimidation of Stepanova for revealing the nasty facts.
One thing facilitating the Russian cheating was the IOC’s awarding of the Winter Olympics to Sochi, Russia. The notion that Russia under Vladimir Putin was going to play it straight was always a fantasy believed by the IOC only. Sure enough, the facilities were engineered to aid the cheating. If this is a blow to Russia and the IOC they have each other to thank for the humiliation before the world.
The Russian doping scandal is not the only foreboding hanging over these Olympics. The fear of the Zika virus— real or exagerrated— has resulted in an exodus of high-profile golfers and tennis players from Rio. Because there has not been a commensurate withdrawal of athletes in other sports it’s believed that the issue is less Zika and more about money. Usain Bolt is still coming, for instance.
For golfers sandwiched between the PGA Championship and the FedEx playoffs— plus the Ryder Cup— the notion of 20 hours travel time return trip from Rio is hard to rationalize. Rory McIlroy summed up the attitude of many when he said he’d be watching the “real” sports from Rio, not the golf. Up until now no one from Michael Jordan to Wayne Gretzky has been able to say no to an Olympic gold medal.
But this Games might represent a watershed for the idea of the Olympics as an event too good to miss.
Reports from Rio also suggest that the attempts to clean up the environment in the swimming areas and other outdoor venues is not going as well as promised by the organizers, who’ve seen the Brazilian economy collapse since winning the bid. Add to that the usual concerns about infrastructure, transportation and policing in the ISIS era and you have enough anxiety for most people.
Can it all come together in time? It’s a mystery. One the IOC hopes is resolved in its favor.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy
Bruce's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience with successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013).