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Russia’s doping program overshadows spectacle as IOC corruption questions rise

Russia’s partial ban raises questions about corruption and the programs of other countries as the Olympic spectacle takes over Rio.

RIO DE JANEIRO — The finish line? That hovers far in the distance for these 2016 Olympic Games, a hazy dream, almost inconceivable. Instead this great international sports beast—bristling with TV cameras, tatted with umpteen sponsor logos, bearing thousands of journalists and millions of fans trying desperately to hold on until the athletes take over—lurched and gasped toward Friday’s starting line, desperate to arrive in one piece. It failed.

Yes, there will be an Opening Ceremony at Rio’s Maracana Stadium, and it will be beautiful and stirring, a sambafied display of sporting talent and national pride. Yes, the top Olympic voice will speak as if from a brutal mountain crested at last.

“There were huge challenges, if not deep crises,” said International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach Thursday afternoon. “Nevertheless you see that this country, this city, this organizing committee has managed to transform a city and put the Olympic Games on their stage. These were not always easy times, and it is not easy times as we speak. … The financial model of the Olympic Games has withstood a stress test which I hope it will not have to stand again in the future.”

• The IOC’s decision not to fully ban Russia undercuts its very mission

The Olympics, of course, will always make money. But the stresses revealed on the very eve of yet another ratings bonanza went deeper and reached higher than anyone knew, and explained a cynicism that has exhausted even its most faithful adherents. How else to take Olympic historian David Wallechinsky’s acceptance of the fact that, for the first time since 1984, this year he didn’t publish an edition of his must-have almanac? “If I had done a book, 98 drug tests would’ve turned it upside down,” Wallechinsky said Thursday.

How else to take the question asked of Bach by a Russian state reporter just an hour before that, at his packed press conference, referring to the IOC’s refusal July 24 to ban the entire Russian delegation (and passing the decision along to each sport’s ruling federation) because of its system of state-sponsored doping? “We are really happy that many sportsmen and athletes are going to take part in the Olympic Games,” she said of her country. “It looked like personally you were helping us. Is it true? Was it difficult, and you were helping us as we think?”

That this was a legitimate line of inquiry said plenty about the state of play in the Olympic world these days; Bach, and his reportedly close friendship with Russian president Vladimir Putin​, is but one actor in the drama that bubbled to a new and furious level Thursday. “This was not a decision of ‘helping somebody here or somebody there’,” Bach answered. “This is a decision of justice which we could take only on the facts. There is a saying, ‘Justice has to be blind.’ It has to apply to the rules of law. This is what the IOC has done.”

Critics—including IOC member Dick Pound, chair of the World Anti-Doping Agency commission that in November 2015 revealed widespread doping in Russian track and field—had condemned the IOC’s light punishment of the Russian program (involving a four-year cover-up by high Russian officials of positive drug tests involving 30 Olympic and Paralympic sports, and a brazen subversion of anti-doping efforts during the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi) as weak, tone-deaf or a failure of the IOC’s stated moral mission. WADA itself had recommended a blanket ban. But no one involved in the inquiry charged that even its scales were rigged.

“The action the IOC took has forever set a bar for how the most outrageous doping and cover-up and corruption possible will be treated in the future,” said Jack Robertson, former lead investigator for WADA, in a story published by ProPublica Thursday morning. “The people in charge are basically raping their sports and the system for self-interest. Sport is seriously broken.”

Robertson, who left the agency in January, charged that WADA president Craig Reedie—also a vice-president of the IOC, which helps fund WADA—repeatedly delayed his investigation, sat on suspicions about Russia for more than a year, and could not be depended on to not leak information to Russian officials. Robertson said WADA “knew” since August 2015 about the scale of the Russian program, but that Reedie waited until media reports this past May forced him to appoint a new WADA investigation led by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren. In effect, slow-walking the case so that it was all but impossible for the IOC to ban Russia outright before the Rio games.  

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Reedie declined an SI request for comment. Robertson also said that Pound, during his November press conference condemning Russia’s doping culture, basically gave the nation “a chance to not face punishment” when Pound said Russia could take some steps to stay eligible for the Rio games. “When I hear him say that, my jaw hit the table,” Robertson said. “I felt sick to my stomach. I felt we had let the whistleblowers and clean athletes down.”

Asked by SI on Thursday about Robertson’s charges, Pound said he saw no delaying by Reedie or WADA overall after German broadcaster ARD ran a documentary on the suspicions in late 2014, but said, “Craig’s not a barroom brawler; his preference on anything like this would be to find a solution. But it became clear very quickly that these were serious allegations. You can’t just ignore them.”

Pound said that in a September 2015 meeting with Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko he had, indeed, outlined how—if Russia dropped their doping program and came fully and publicly clean—“’Maybe you could satisfy the world that you’ve fixed a problem.’ But they didn’t.”

Pound said he wrote Bach a letter before last month’s IOC ruling calling for a ban of the entire Russian team. Robertson, he said, never told him of his concerns about himself or Reedie. “This guy was fired,” Pound said of Robertson. “He leaked the report to (head of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency) Travis Tygart, and that’s a total breach of your obligations as an employee: Don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out. So there may be a little residue from that.”

Robertson told ProPublica that his dismissal was “unfair, but  “what I’m saying here has nothing to do with that.”

But if Robertson’s motives are questionable, McLaren’s seemingly are not. And on Thursday, McLaren, one of three investigators on Pound’s commission and the lead on the 57-day inquiry that laid the Russian system bare in July, accused the IOC of misrepresenting his findings to get the goods on individual athletes. His charge and report, he told The Guardian, was designed to prove the existence of state-sponsored doping—not whether or how a specific athlete doped. Yet his incidental findings on some athletes led the IOC to demand that the international federations ban anyone named in his report from Rio.

“People have misconstrued what was in that report, particularly the IOC and international federations,” McLaren told The Guardian. “I have not done the work to drill down and see which athletes may have been doping and what they had been using.”

• See all of Sports Illustrated’s coverage from the 2016 Rio Olympics

That confusion was seemingly one factor in the final scramble on the eve of the Opening Ceremony. The IOC had appointed a three-person panel to review international federation rulings on Russian athletes, and on Thursday it approved more than 60 shooters, boxers, judokas, tennis players, sailors, riders, archers and others, bringing to Russian delegation to 271 out of the original 389. Sixty-seven track and field athletes, along with eight weightlifters remained banned, but a late ruling by the Court of Arbitration for Sport deemed that the IOC’s July 24 decision to bar any Russian athletes guilty of a doping offense from Rio, even if they had served their penalty, to be “unenforceable.”

That ruling, of course, only makes possible more appeals and the prospect of more suspect Russians being allowed back on the field or court or pool deck in Rio. “As of today,” said Russian Olympic Committee president Alexander Zhukov, “I think there is no other team that is so clean and so carefully controlled than the Russian one.” Whether it also means that an appearance here, too, by Russian runner Yulia Stepanova, the whistleblower stupidly banned by the IOC in the first place, remains unclear.

All in all, then, it is an unholy mess, like nothing the Olympics has experienced since 2004. That was the year, remember, when the IOC returned to the Games’ ancient birthplace and found itself in chemical purgatory. A record 26 anti-doping violations, the most cartoonish by Greek standard-bearers, stained that hallowed narrative, but the offenders were all small-fry, athletes and coaches impaled and tossed. This is different. And that’s the one small consolation, a twisted idea of progress: The fight against doping has worked its way at last up the greasy pole.

Pound estimates that as many as 15 nations are currently running state-sponsored doping programs. We are now seeing light shined on IOC enablers, on bureaucratic dictators and state flunkies, on high officials who speak lofty principals and pressure those on the ground to dope. Will they all be caught? Punished? Don’t bet on it. But you can enjoy watching them squirm.