By CATHAL KELLY
Friday, September 21, 2018
TORONTO -- Three years ago, as it was making a big show of scratching Russia's name out of the Olympic good books, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) did a lot of bureaucratic posturing.
"Firm action was requested," the global regulator of drugs in sport said in a statement at the time, referencing a series of reports detailing state-sponsored Russian drug cheating. "And firm action is now being taken." Here's the first rule of a street fight - the guy doing all the talking is the guy who's going to lose.
WADA got laid out on the global pavement on Thursday, voting to readmit Russia's anti-doping agency (RUSADA) despite the fact Russia has done essentially nothing to prove it has changed its slippery ways.
All of this was approved at a WADA board meeting in the Seychelles, which may be the most Olympically appropriate location in the world. Can't these people just rent a boardroom at a Motel 6?
Although the change will have no immediate effect on current bans on the Russian federations for athletics, weightlifting and paralympics, it opens the door for their return, following the reinstatement of the Russian Olympic Committee after the country was banned from this past year's Winter Games in South Korea.
It also clears a major hurdle for Russia's track team to be declared compliant by that sport's international governing body, one of the few to take a strong, consistent stand against doping.
Per the original ouster, WADA had two key demands. First, that Russia admit it cheated on a vast, organized scale (it would not); and, second, that the agency be allowed access to Russian labs in order to push ahead backlogged investigations (it has not).
From this point on, Russia will resume testing its own athletes. It may also issue what are referred to as temporary-use exemptions (TUE), allowing competitors to take banned drugs for certain health conditions.
This is rather like letting an armed robber out of jail, handing him a ski mask and then giving him a lift to the gun store.
Now that WADA's on the ground, all of its friends are rushing in and giving it a good kicking while it's down.
The U.S. anti-doping agency said the decision "stinks to high heaven." Its British counterpart called it "a catastrophe."
A lawyer for Grigory Rodchenkov, the whistle-blowing Sochi lab boss who started this kerfuffle, called it "the greatest treachery against clean athletes in Olympic history."
Surely, that would be the many individual competitors, coaches and executive figures who, you know, actually broke the rules?
But this is no time to be sensible. When it comes to performance-enhancing drugs in Olympic sport, it's never that time.
All of the talk around this issue boils down to fantastical notions of "fair play."
You may have noticed that "fair play" is not much in evidence in our world. The times may be better or worse, but they are never fair.
In fact, the organizing principle throughout human history has been unfair play. We - you and I - are the beneficiaries of it.
If the world is unfair, why would the Olympics - a perfect microcosm - be any different? The Games aren't politics by other means. They are politics in its alluring form - us against them, with a way to prove who is better, objectively.
The success of the Olympic movement made sport a foreignpolicy arm of every developed country, as well as a matter of extreme national pride. Sport now ranks just below war as the thing most likely to get your citizens all pulling in the same direction.
That creates an incentive to win. Where winning is privileged, people will cheat to achieve it. In sport, there is no greater incentive than a gold medal at the Olympics.
Were WADA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) sensible, they would start by recognizing that feedback loop.
That might result in an admission that people will always cheat, and the stupidest among them will be caught. The goal would not be total purity, but a reasonable check on our baser instincts. The mission statement could be, 'We'll do what we can.' But, of course, WADA and the IOC can't say that because we won't allow them to. Instead, we expect a few dozen lab rats to stare down an irritable superpower and come out with the sort of diplomatic victory Napoleon's Grande Armée couldn't extract.
Now that it's gone wrong, all the rest of us get the pleasure of being devastated by our disappointment.
We'll still watch the Olympics, of course. We'll still obsess over who makes the hockey team, gush over the latest figure-skating darlings and buy mittens with maple leafs on them. But right now, when the Olympics are not on, we are done with the Olympics.
Somehow, this has all become WADA's fault. "Treachery"? I mean, come on.
WADA doesn't put the Olympics (or the world championships or what-have-you) on. It tries try as best it can to wrangle the participants. It's not its responsibility to decide which country is on the side of light.
Frankly, it's not the IOC's either.
The IOC's job is putting on the only popular global event to which everyone in the world is invited. It is not a moral arbiter.
It is a party host.
If we ever decide cheaters are uninvited until they stand up in front of the class and admit they were wrong, that will be good news for the taxpayers who underwrite these extravaganzas.
They'll be able to fit the whole event into a high-school gym.
Truly rigorous enforcement would be bad for business, which is the IOC's real work.
That's been the real agenda all along.
So kudos to the people in the Kremlin - they were the only clear-eyed actors in all of this. They recognized that the United States, China, Canada et al. do not want to participate in an Olympics in which every accomplishment is appended with "... but if the Russians had been there."
All Russia had to do was wait. Surrender was inevitable.
Although a great deal of ink, effort and money has been expended, no one's learned any lessons here. No one has grown as a result.
WADA is humiliated. The cheats are emboldened. The IOC looks even more feckless.
And the Olympics take another reputational hit.
The real disappointment is that we end up even further from the only realistic way of solving the drug problem in sports.
That would be acknowledging that while banned drugs are not allowed at the Olympics, that is not the same thing as guaranteeing their absence.
Athletes' samples are scrutinized at Russia's national drug-testing facility in Moscow in May, 2016. ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/AP