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Keith Strudler: What We Can Learn From The IOC

It’s rare I’d ever say this, but the leadership of the United States could learn a thing or two from IOC. I’m referring to the International Olympic Committee, which, generally speaking, is not the place you look for lessons in leadership. But, in this instance, they do seem to have greater moral clarity than our own White House and a bunch of people that work in it.

That’s because last week, the World Anti-Doping Agency, the independent agency that oversees all drug testing protocol and procedure for the vast range of international sports organizations – including the IOC and FIFA – was actually tough on Russia when they recommended a four year ban for the nation in international sporting events. This comes as the Agency – or WADA – found that Russia had manipulated laboratory data from the nation’s current drug testing program. And the reason they had to send this to WADA in the first place is to end their recent three-year ban from international sports for essentially running a state sponsored sports pharmacy. That’s what kept Russia out of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, although provisions were created to allow some Russian athletes to compete but not technically for the Russian Olympic team. Those athletes had to essentially prove they hadn’t cheated and they were labeled “Olympic athletes from Russia.” The same is likely in the 2020 Summer Olympics, although WADA and the IOC are looking for a slightly more ambiguous term that won’t give Russia the same recognition. Whatever it is, if you see a sprinter in 2020 wearing a white t-shirt without logos, you can probably figure it out.

The reaction thus far is mixed, as you might expect. The Russian Federation isn’t particularly pleased, and plans to appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which, if nothing else, is a great excuse to take a trip to Lausanne, Switzerland. Other national sports federations – particularly the United States Olympic Committee – are a bit less encouraged. From the US vantage point, anything less than a full and complete ban of all Russian athletes is something of a failure. And to be clear, a significant percent of WADA wanted that very punishment. But either way, I imagine this verdict to stick as is, and I also expect a significant number of athletes to compete under the white flag – assuming Russia allows that to happen. And not for nothing, but Russia’s also out of the next World Cup, if that matters to you. And remember, they hosted in 2018, something they won’t be allowed to do under the current ban.

There’s a lot to take away from this, both about sport and international relations. First, to be clear, we are a long way from anything we might consider clean sport, the aspiration of the Olympics and pretty much any other sport that operates in a global economy. Perhaps we can take solace in believing WADA is cracking down on one of the planet’s worst offenders – and they are. But let’s also understand that this in no way solves the problem. All it really proves is that the cancer is far more wide spread than we’d like to believe, at least assuming you enjoy the myth of fair competition.

Second, this should remind us that creating so-called “clean sport” won’t happen simply because we’ve built a better mousetrap. As much as we’d all hope a strict and rigorous crime and punishment process would end the problem – otherwise known as drug testing – it’s often just not the case. In reality, the only way we truly end systematic performance enhancing drug use is by getting everyone involved – namely the countries that participate – to buy into the same narrative. Which is really hard to do in a global sports landscape that prioritizes winning at all costs, where the risks are definitely worth the rewards. Unless countries like Russia – and let’s be fair, like a whole lot of other places as well – unless they believe the journey is just as important as the destination, then no amount of stick is going to work.

And maybe that’s the bigger point here, to the extent that sport is merely a metaphor. Any number of our current global crises – let’s take global warming – won’t be solved by countries signing agreements or punishing offenders. They will be solved when countries believe the mission – in this case, saving the planet – is worth the cost of individual victory. When that happens, places like China and, I don’t know, the US, might worry less about GDP rankings and more about water levels. Until then, probably not.

That’s might be the most important lesson the White House could take from this whole Russian Olympics sports fiasco. A lesson I highly doubt they’d care to understand.

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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