Login | November 23, 2017

Ghost of Sochi haunts 2018 Olympic Winter Games

JAMES P. MOORHEAD
Law Bulletin columnist

Published: November 6, 2017

The 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, will start exactly 100 days from Wednesday Nov. 1, 2017.

As the media coverage and excitement begins to build this week for the upcoming Winter Games, just below the surface of that media excitement is the rot and stink of the unresolved doping scandal from the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

During those Sochi Games, the Russian government is alleged to have run a systematic cheating operation in which drug-positive urine samples of Russian athletes were exchanged with clean urine samples.

Former Moscow Laboratory director Grigory Rodchenkov has acknowledged that Russia tampered with the secure urine samples. When Rodchenkov fled to the United States, he had a list of Russian athletes implicated in the cheating along with similar Russian documentation.

During the Winter Games in Sochi, the Russians won 33 medals, including 13 gold. This was a Russian record. By comparison, the Russians only won 15 medals, including three gold, at the 2010 Vancouver Games.

The International Olympic Committee’s response to the Sochi doping scandal has been widely criticized with some calling it wholly inadequate.

The current investigation is taking too long, critics say, and they could have been completed much sooner than just three months before the 2018 Games are set to begin. IOC investigators hope to have several doping cases from the Sochi Games finished by the end of November.

Additionally, an IOC commission that is investigating the Russian doping may refuse to determine whether the cheating athletes might be eligible to compete in Pyeongchang. The commission may prefer to push those decisions onto the individual sport federations.

The IOC similarly punted these tough athlete eligibility decisions right before the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. The IOC’s failure to make those decisions caused a panic just before the Rio Olympics that year, leading to hasty decisions on complicated athlete cases. Once the dust settled on the Rio decisions almost 300 Russian athletes competed in those Games.

The international sport organizations have taken some action in response to Sochi. Four significant athletic competitions were relocated from Russia during the 2016-17 competition season, including the cross-country skiing World Cup finals and the bobsled and skeleton world championships.

Also, biathlon officials will vote soon on whether to remove the 2021 world championships from Russia.

The International Olympic Committee has directed that no new events be hosted in Russia until the Sochi doping scandal is resolved.

Notwithstanding the IOC actions, international leaders in Olympic sports have called for a total ban on Russia in the 2018 Winter Games.

Many such international leaders believe that a total ban is required to bring legitimacy back to Olympic competition. The leaders are concerned that any mismanagement of the doping investigations could allow cheating athletes to slip into competitions in Pyeongchang.

“The IOC should not once again off-load the final decision-making on eligibility (and the pressure and risk of error) to International Federations, and at the last minute,” said Joseph de Pencier, the CEO of the Institute of National Doping Organizations, according to an Oct. 19 Associated Press report.

The IOC’s failure to suitably reprimand Russia for the Sochi doping has a direct impact on the United States.

The U.S. Biathlon Association, headquartered in New Gloucester, Maine, manages the U.S. Biathlon National, Development and Junior Teams. Founded in 1980, the U.S. Biathlon Association is recognized by the U.S. Olympic Committee as the United States’ national federation for biathlon.

USBA’s President and CEO Max Cobb is also the vice president for Sport of the International Biathlon Union and is the first American elected to the IBU’s executive board.

Olympic biathlon race is a combination of cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. During each shooting round, the biathlete needs to hit five targets at a 50-meter distance. Missed shooting targets are penalized by requiring additional skiing or adding time to the racer’s overall time. The competitor with the shortest overall race time is the winner.

Despite biathlon’s relative anonymity in the United States, the sport is one of the most popular in Europe and has a huge television audience.

The sport requires a combination of tremendous physical endurance for the cross-country skiing portion and dexterity and control for the shooting portion.

Due to its competitive demands, biathlon is a sport that is ripe for doping.

The U.S. Olympic Biathlon team has been long recognized as an anti-doping advocate. The individual U.S. racers, very successful considering the relative lack of funding and support than their international competition, has suffered at the hands of international dopers.

But even with doping prevalent in international biathlon, however, the U.S. athletes were taken aback at the systematic Russian cheating in Sochi.

Lowell Bailey has been a member of the U.S. Olympic Biathlon Team since 2006. He called the Russian doping scandal in Sochi “the most shocking thing that has occurred in my athletic career.” Bailey was the first American biathlete to win a gold medal at biathlon’s world championships.

“It’s painful to know it’s not a level playing field,” Susan Dunklee, another member of the U.S. Olympic Biathlon Team, said in an AP report on Sept. 30. “It’s unhealthy for everyone involved.”

The Russian doping scandal affected other U.S. Olympic teams as well. Tiger Shaw, president of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, also called for the IOC to ban Russia from the Pyeongchang Olympics.

The fate of the Russian athletes and the legitimacy of the Pyeongchang Games currently is in the hands of IOC President Thomas Bach. Bach will decide if Russia can compete in the 2018 Winter Games once he receives investigation results from two IOC commissions.

The Schmid and Oswald Commissions were organized in 2016 after the World Anti-Doping Agency determined that at least 15 Russian medals won at the 2014 Sochi Games were earned by doping. These commissions hope to issue conclusions within the next few weeks.

People involved generally hope that Bach will issue the IOC decision about whether Russia can compete in Pyeongchang by December.


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