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Keith Strudler: Russia’s Olympic Problem

I never thought I’d say this, but wouldn’t it be great if the American federal government acted more like the International Olympic Committee. Generally speaking, that’s almost comedic. It’s like wishing your accountant could be a little more like Bernie Madoff or that your cab driver could be more like Lizzie Grubman. The IOC is often regarded as the most corrupt major sporting body outside of FIFA and has been accused of everything from systemic bribery to privileging human rights tragedies. But yet, IOC leadership seems capable of things our US leadership can’t, or won’t do. More to the point, the Olympics, unlike America, just stood up to Russia.

That’s what happened yesterday when the IOC officially banned the Russian Olympic Team from the 2018 Winter Games, which to be clear will be held only a couple months from now in South Korea. This comes because of what the IOC deemed an extensive state-backed doping program, one reminiscent of the Cold War era when the East German women’s team became a punch line for Saturday Night Live.  Just as problematic as the government supported performance enhancing drug use was the complex process by which Russian athletes evaded drug tests, including passing clean urine samples through holes drilled in laboratory walls. If nothing else, you do have to appreciate Russian ingenuity in dismantling regulatory agencies, something we’re keenly aware of here in the US.

For that, the IOC will keep Russia and its athletes out of South Korea this winter, which, to be honest, sounds more like a reward given the current state of affairs on the Peninsula. Select Russian athletes can petition to compete if they can convince the IOC they’ve been clean and tested. But they won’t compete under the Russian flag or in a Russian uniform, but rather as an “Olympic Athlete from Russia.” And if they win, they’ll raise the Olympic flag and play the Olympic anthem. It’s like listening to the Kidz Bop version of a song instead of the original – you parents know what I’m talking about, and it’s not pleasant.

Apparently the Kremlin has asked for calm after the decision and has vowed evaluation before doing anything rash. To be honest, there’s not much they can do, other than pull out of future Olympics, or perhaps try to start their own global sporting festival, which would likely sink like the Titanic. Besides, the Olympics and similar events like the World Cup have increasingly become dictator friendly, so why would Putin want to quit now?

There are a couple of important points from this fairly monumental decision. Countries have been banned before, but not ones that regularly finish in the top three of the medal count – not unless we’re counting Germany after the Second World War. First, yes, Russia kind of deserves this, and their cheating was totally next level.  When it comes to doping, Russia brought a gun to a knife fight. Russia puts more state support to medical doping than the US government does towards our entire health care system – and yes, that was a dig at the President and our Republican Congress. But also know that Russians aren’t the only ones who cheat, and cheaters don’t only come from rogue nations with thugs for leaders – although that does make it easier. The American Olympic history is lined with syringes, and we certainly have plenty of Olympic heroes that doped their way to the medal platform – not to mention the ones that actually got caught. Perhaps the biggest difference is that we drug our athletes like we do everything else in this country – through the private sector. Private labs and trainers that operated in the shadows of commerce. So perhaps we were never as efficient as state sponsored drug sports empires, like Russia, who have always been better at getting PED’s to their athletes. Take that, free market capitalists.

Second, and importantly, this is not an insignificant moment in Olympic history. I’m not going to predict that this marks the end of the Olympics, only because the Olympics has survived more than a few existential moments, most precipitated by global conflict – like World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. But banishing major Olympic powers from what was supposedly a global reunion shows just how fragile the Olympic alliance really is. Particularly in the current era, it was assumed an imperative to be at the Games because of their economic potential. So missing the Olympics would be like missing a final exam in college – you could never make that up. But that assumed an increasing tendency toward globalism and shared economics, something that’s less likely in the current geopolitical climate. Between that, and the fact that the Olympics are marginally relevant to a millennial population that cares less about both terrestrial television and civic pride, and there’s fewer and fewer arguments for keeping this sporting experiment alive. Perhaps 122 years was a good enough run, if but a few hundred years shy of the Ancient Games.

Will the Olympics survive this, and will Russia come back? Who knows. But I do wish, for once, our government could act just a bit more like the IOC.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management. 

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