The Hot Corner
Issue   |   Tue, 02/20/2018 - 18:09

The New York Times reported on Sunday, Feb. 19 that Alexander Krushelnytsky, a curler from Russia who won a bronze medal in these 2018 Winter Olympics, has tested positive for meldonium — a banned heart medication — and may be stripped of his medal.
Krushelnytsky’s positive test is a deep source of embarrassment for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which determined that he was “clean” before allowing him to compete under the Olympic flag. It revealed the inadequacies of pre-competition banned substance tests and showed the IOC’s soft treatment of Russia to be a misguided farce.
Russia loves its performance enhancers. In the time since performance enhancing drug (PED) use became common, the IOC has stripped Russian athletes of a total of 41 medals. That is the most of any country in the world, and by a lot — the second highest total is a measly 10. In fact, more than a quarter of all stripped Olympic medals have been taken from Russian athletes. In recent years, various reports have exposed massive Russian state-sponsored doping programs that would make a New Jersey politician’s stomach turn. These programs involve elaborate networks of payoffs and extortion that could fit right into a Martin Scorsese movie. Doping control officers themselves are in on the scam, receiving payouts sometimes valued north of half a million dollars in return for performing sleight of hand with a couple urine bottles. One even wonders how, with a huge doping scam to run, the Russian government can still find the time to meddle with foreign elections.
Russia also seems to be putting a pressure on its athletes that makes East German gymnastics look like intramural soccer. While in the United States, we often view PED use as the result of an athlete’s moral dissoluteness, in Russia, doping is required of athletes who wish to compete on an elite level. Jack Robertson, who investigated the Russian machinations for the World Anti-Doping Agency, said in December, “when a Russian athlete rose to the national level, he or she had no choice in the matter: It was either dope, or you’re done.”
That investigation, which included testimony from Russian athletes, asserted that 99 percent of Russian national team-level athletes are using performance enhancers. You would be hard-pressed to find another characteristic that 99 percent of any group shares. When possible, the Russian sports ministries pump their athletes with PEDs without the athletes’ knowledge. Five blind power-lifters tested positive for PEDs the Paralympics, likely unwitting victims of Russia’s chemical training regimen. And, athletes as young as 15 have been forced to flood their veins with illicit drugs.
This is not as if Russia was requiring athletes to cut the course in a road race, either. Doping is no run-of-the-mill form of cheating. Many of the substances that Russia forces its athletes to consume or inject pose severe health risks, and without proper or available record-keeping, athletes walk around unaware of the exact damage they might have done to their bodies.
Russia’s schemes were particularly brazen during the 2014 Olympics, hosted on home soil in Sochi. During the games, officials conducting on-site doping tests used a type of specimen container called the BEREG-KIT. The bottles were designed to seal when closed so that they would need to be broken if they were to be opened. Well, if anyone thought the Russians, on their home turf, were not going to find a way to pry those things open, they would have been sorely disappointed. What few anti-doping officials the Russian government had not paid off or extorted were duped by these vanishing positive samples.
The IOC, with Russia’s chicanery now on full display, could not allow this brazen cheating to proceed unchecked. In a rare moment of swift decision-making, the organization banned Russia from participation at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. It appeared, if only for the briefest of moments, that a governing body had sent a powerful message to countries that this type of institutionalized cheating would not be tolerated.
Of course, like with most responses to PED use, this swift and severe response quickly became diluted and reduced to a wishy-washy imposition of mild inconvenience. It would be cruel, they said, to punish the “clean” athletes just because of the indiscretions of their “dirty” compatriots. So, any athletes who could pass a set of so-called “strict conditions” could compete under the Olympic flag as an “Olympic Athlete from Russia.”
As if an unwieldy title that sounds more like a handle for a talk radio caller than a national affiliation would prevent the Russian ministry from feeling any pride in the accomplishments of these Olympic Athletes from Russia. This is especially the case since there’s at least a small chance that the Athletes will be allowed to march under the Russian flag at the closing ceremonies.
We could forgive the IOC for all of this if we had some reason to believe that these purportedly clean athletes actually were clean. Yet Krushelnytsky’s positive test revealed what we all knew: 99 percent means 99 percent.
There’s something especially haunting about Krushelnytsky’s case of doping. He was competing in mixed doubles curling with his wife as his partner — admittedly a charming concept. This sounds like a delightful activity to do on a winter-themed cruise ship, certainly not a competition in which you would expect to encounter PED use. So intractable is Russia’s commitment to doping, that even in a sport like mixed doubles curling it cannot resist seeking a biochemical edge over the competition.
Of course, it is understandable that the IOC would be reluctant to ban athletes whom it could not prove to be using PEDs. It would indeed be a shame if an athlete who resisted the state’s coercion were punished as if they had gone along with the PED plan. This concern, however, misses the point. Punishment for cheating in sports should not be handled the same way we handle punishment for violating criminal law. We could never accept a justice system that would tolerate punishing innocent citizens. That is a central requirement of legitimacy in a legal system.
In sports, however, avoiding unjust punishment, though an admiral goal, is not of the utmost importance. Doping presents two threats that are more grave than wrongful conviction. The first, of course, is cheating. A competition loses its meritocratic meaning when the outcome can be attributed to one competitor’s willingness to break the rules. Second, sports become disconcerting when the contest is really a dangerous race to most perfectly manipulate an athlete’s biochemistry. Curling should be a game, not a science experiment.
The IOC needs to recognize the true significance of the threat that doping poses to sports. What Russia does to its athletes simply cannot be allowed to occur. The collateral damage of a hardline stance is a necessary price to pay for a clean, or at the very least, cleaner Olympics.