I have some sympathy for Vladimir Putin. For years, he was playing footsie with the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The IOC had surely known perfectly well, and for decades, that Russian athletes, like many others, were doped to the eyeballs. It turned a deaf ear to all whistleblowers and journalists on the subject, even when clear evidence was privately submitted to it and its laughable “anti-doping” agency by Vitaly and Yuliya Stepanov, as long ago as 2010. The IOC did nothing to damage the farrago of cheating, waste and corruption that was the 2014 Sochi winter games.
Russia was the IOC’s kind of country. It put chauvinism before money, and money before sport. It spent like mad and doped like mad. When in 2014 the desperate Stepanovs broke cover and gave their ignored material to the media, the balloon went up. The IOC even admitted to being embarrassed, though it revealed its true opinion of whistleblowers when it allowed other Russian athletes to compete at Rio 2016, but banned Yuliya Stepanova. That is what international sport does to those who do not play by its rules.
This week, following claims from another cast-iron whistleblower, Grigory Rodchenkov, and at least three inquiries, the IOC declared that Russia had committed “an unprecedented attack on the integrity of the Olympic Games and sport”. IOC president Thomas Bach said Russians could compete in next year’s winter games in Seoul only under a “neutral” IOC banner, albeit with the word Russia attached – an implausible certificate of cleanliness.
If I were Putin, I would ask Bach: how was I so clean three years ago and dirty now? There is nothing new. And what about all the other countries the IOC must know have doped their athletes? If the reply is that Russian doping was “state-sponsored”, I would say pull the other one. The truth is that this week the IOC, as well as Russia, has been found out.
Supranational bodies will go on corrupting sport and enjoying themselves by Swiss lakes as long as they remain unaccountable oligarchies. They will do so as long as members such as Britain and America collude with their misbehaviour in pursuit of a blind craving for sporting prestige. Britain’s Olympic officials knew about doping, because every athlete knew. The trouble, as Stepanova poignantly indicated in a 2016 BBC interview, is that something is not news when everyone knows it, except the public.
The reality of sports doping is that it floats on a vast sea of money. Yet the $15m fine the IOC is imposing on Moscow for anti-doping “costs” is trivial. I bet none of it finds its way to the Stepanovs or Rodchenkov, now hiding in fear for their lives.
Meanwhile, international sport is closing ranks. The IOC felt compelled to ban the Russian sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, from the Olympics “for life”, though it curiously exonerated Mutko’s Kremlin boss. There is no suggestion of any consequent boycott of Russia’s 2018 football World Cup, also run by Mutko. This is despite dark questions still being asked about how the international football body, Fifa, “awarded” the contest to Moscow, at the same time as the 2022 cup went to Qatar.
Both decisions stank of potential corruption. Fifa yesterday issued a statement supporting Mutko, as if to silence so much as a murmur that his doping activities might have strayed beyond athletics into football. The recent independent report into state-sponsored doping in Russia pointed to the involvement of some 30 sports.
Any athlete will attest that talent can take you to the top, but to stay there the temptation to use drugs is intense. Teams depend on you. Your country treats your medals as its own, as decorative fodder for the glory of the state. In this respect Britain is among the worst. It tips public money into “winning medals” that poorer states could never afford, and it punishes athletes who fail to win them by cutting their incomes. It is reminiscent of the old Soviet bloc.
The IOC has, perhaps ironically, indicated a way out of this mess. It is to regard athletes from “guilty” countries not as representatives, but as individuals. It should go further: it should now treat all athletes that way. It should end the rampant chauvinism – introduced by Hitler in 1936 – and invite athletes to participate as citizens of the world. The writer Bernard Levin even proposed they should compete naked, as in ancient Greece, to rid the games of nationalist emblems. The relentless razzmatazz of teams, uniforms, flags, anthems and hysterical commentators has turned the Olympics into a parody of Strictly Come Dancing.
The Olympics might also avoid the charge of being a rich man’s touring club by being held always in the same place: perhaps Greece, where they began. Television means there is no reason to trundle round the globe, impoverishing one city after another with white elephants and rubbish about “legacy”. The circus continues, at escalating expense, so the IOC can bless craven politicians as “hosts”, and allow its stage army of ticket agents, consultants, contractors and brand marketers to make vast quantities of money. For the victim cities, the ruination is staggering.
Andrew Zimbalist’s study of the Olympics, Circus Maximus, showed claims of a positive Olympics legacy are “offensively misleading”. They simply blow millions, now billions, on three weeks of sport.
Rio’s stadium lies decayed and looted, Athens’s lies squatted. London’s Stratford stadium, even after a £323m conversion, is said to be costing Londoners £20m a year, as a result of Boris Johnson’s generous deal with West Ham football club. As for David Cameron’s promise of 2 million more sportsmen after 2012 – they have failed to materialise.
All pleas for the return of dignity to global sport will fall on deaf ears as long as it is run not by athletes and their colleagues, but by governments in thrall to cartels such as Fifa and the IOC. Great sporting events can give pleasure to millions, but they can do so at a fraction of the present cost, and without the crude corruption of young bodies with drugs. As it is, international sport has been hijacked by a monopolistic elite of individuals and corporations, their activities regulated only by occasional bouts of bad publicity.