It seems impossible, but there are still adults who view the Olympics with innocent eyes. One, a postal worker of 28 years and a mother, was found the other day in Fountain Valley, Calif., and when she spoke of watching the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro “with a pure mind and hope,” it did produce a disorienting effect. Like the sight of a live dodo.
Because for many, the Olympic phenomenon now stumbling into our homes for its biennial 17-day visit has all the marks of a dissolute pol. The body is bloated. The reputation has been tarred by a bribery scandal, illegal drug use, unrealized promise and disillusioned hosts. A growing list of places have declared the Games non grata, and here’s betting Brazil would if it could: The last time a locale suffered this many plagues, frogs and locusts swarmed the pyramids. And that was before the International Olympic Committee faced its most trying ethical moment in a generation—and blinked.
On July 24, despite a devastating World Anti-Doping Agency report that had confirmed the breadth of Russia’s state-sponsored drug program, the subversion of antidoping efforts during the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, and a four-year cover-up by high-level Russian officials of positive drug tests involving athletes from 30 Olympic and Paralympic sports, the IOC executive board decided against a comprehensive ban of Russia from the Rio Games. This despite IOC president Thomas Bach’s promise of “the toughest sanctions” for this “unprecedented attack on the integrity of sports.”
“At the end of the day,” Bach said later, “you have to be able to look into the eyes of the individual athlete concerned by your decision.”
So far, despite the IOC’s pledge that a three-person panel will have final say on which Russian athletes will be able to compete, the IOC itself has barred only one: 800-meter runner Yulia Stepanova, an admitted PED user who in 2014 blew the whistle on the Russian system. Otherwise, the IOC shunted responsibility to each sport’s international federation, some of which have strong Russian connections. The honorary president of the International Judo Federation is one Vladimir Putin. And IJF president Marius Vizer has been a Bach antagonist since April ‘15, when he ripped the IOC’s practices as “expired, outdated, wrong, unfair.”
“It’s a squandered opportunity for the IOC to show real leadership in this fight,” says IOC member Dick Pound, who headed the independent WADA commission that began investigating the allegations against Russia in 2015. “They punted, and right to the fox in the henhouse. It couldn’t have been worse. Vizer has been attacking the IOC. Turning that over to him, you wouldn’t expect to hear anything other than, ‘All the judo players will be there. Period.’“
Sure enough, two days after the IOC decision, the IJF announced that all 11 Russian judokas would compete in Rio. The tennis and shooting federations also cleared every Russian to compete, and 16 of 17 Russian wrestlers were given the nod. Meanwhile, following up on the IAAF’s nine-month-old ban that applies to Russia’s 68 track and field athletes, the International Weightlifting Federation last week barred the Russian team, made up of eight members. Of the original 387 athletes in the Russian delegation, more than 100 have now been told to stay home.
For many, that’s not nearly enough. “You can’t talk about zero tolerance and absolutely severe penalties and then back off when it comes to game day,” Pound says. “The IOC is going to have to figure out a way to get back on the right side of the moral compass here.”
It will take some doing. After 40 years the IOC still hasn’t fully resolved its first brush with state-sponsored doping. “They’re kind of a weak organization,” says U.S. swimming great Shirley Babashoff, 59. “What they could do for me and my teammates and all the other women who swam in the 1976 Games is right there. It’s a blatant wound, and they can’t even fix that.”
Babashoff is swimming’s heartbreak kid. At 19 she went to Montreal favored to sweep the freestyle events only to get ground up by East Germany’s blossoming steroid program. She won one gold after swimming the anchor leg of the 4 × 100 relay—but all silver in her individual races—and got tagged Surly Shirley for questioning the East German methods. The nickname faded once Babashoff was vindicated by records released after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 revealing widespread state-sponsored doping, but the hurt remained: The IOC has refused to award the cheated ones of that era their due.
Of the East German swimmers Babashoff says, “Other than the fact that they stole my medals, they don’t really mean that much to me. People ask, ‘Aren’t you angry?’ But I didn’t want to give them the satisfaction. They’re kind of worthless.”
That line is delivered with a bitter edge, but it doesn’t last. Babashoff refuses to join in the chorus ripping the IOC’s Russia decision. “I don’t think there should be a blanket ban,” she says. “I’m sure there are Russians who trained and did it legitimately.”
But the miracle is that even Shirley Babashoff can’t wait for the Rio Games to start. Each day, after she finishes walking her mail route, she plans to race home and catch every minute. “I love watching the Olympics,” she says. “I like to see what people are capable of.”
Action distracts. For maybe a race or a routine or a moment, then, many will suspend the fear that a Russian on a Rio podium might prompt other nations to calculate that any risk is worth the reward. For a moment, people might forget that moral authority—Olympic or otherwise—is like any muscle: Unused, it eventually loses all strength.
“Things happen to you in life, but you have to move forward, put it in the past,” Babashoff says. And then, in less than a breath, she adds, “But, yeah, I would like my medals, thank you.”