Team Russia Waiting To Learn Fate For 2018 Winter Olympics

Dec 4, 2017
Originally published on December 4, 2017 6:19 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The Winter Olympics in South Korea are coming, and tomorrow we will find out if Russia is going. The International Olympic Committee is set to decide whether the Russian team can compete because of Russia's ongoing doping scandal. NPR's Tom Goldman reports the IOC's decision could have a major impact on the entire Olympic movement.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: The IOC faced a similar decision last year. Leading up to the Rio de Janeiro Summer Games, an independent report detailed a widespread state-sponsored doping system in Russia during a period that included Russia's hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Russian athletes won the most gold medals there and the most medals overall.

There were calls to ban Russia from the Rio Olympics, but the IOC essentially punted and had the federations that run individual sports decide. This resulted in a last-minute patchwork Russian team competing in Brazil. This time, says Olympic historian Jules Boykoff, the IOC has to act.

JULES BOYKOFF: I think we have too much evidence now.

GOLDMAN: Boykoff wrote the book "Power Games," a political history of the Olympics.

BOYKOFF: Unlike ahead of the Rio Olympics, the process has moved through IOC channels. And so the IOC commissions that have been set up to look at doping are now banning Russians on what seems like an almost daily basis.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Ukrainian).

GOLDMAN: This Ukrainian newscast announced some of the nearly two dozen Russian athletes who've been sanctioned since last month, including Olympic medal winners. And the numbers are expected to grow. Additionally, the World Anti-Doping Agency, WADA, says Russia still hasn't fully complied with WADA standards. The push for IOC action includes a call to ban all Russian athletes from the upcoming Winter Olympics. But even those most affected by doping think that's a step too far.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking German).

GOLDMAN: When American biathlete Lowell Bailey earned his first podium finish top three in this 2014 race, he didn't know the Russian athlete who finished one place ahead of him was, in Bailey's words, doped to the gills. The Russian served a two-year suspension and returned to competition. The incident sharpened Bailey's attitudes toward doping.

LOWELL BAILEY: Such a vile act, the worst thing you can do as a competitor.

GOLDMAN: But the anger doesn't blind him to the fact that a total Russian athlete ban for the upcoming games would unfairly punish the clean Russian athletes.

BAILEY: In this case, I would like to see due process first and foremost. I think every athlete deserves that.

GOLDMAN: Many agree. And among those calling for the strongest possible action, the consensus is this. Ban the Russian Federation, but allow individual athletes to compete if they pass stringent drug tests. And those who get in would compete under a neutral flag, wearing a neutral uniform. Russian leaders who continue to deny state sponsored doping don't like that, and they say they might respond by boycotting the games. For the IOC, it's a delicate balancing act. Russia's a major power player in the Olympic movement. But Jules Boykoff says the IOC also knows it has to be firm to back up all its tough talk about fighting doping, especially at a vulnerable time for the Olympics.

BOYKOFF: There's no getting around the fact that fewer and fewer cities are game to host the Olympic Games. And what could happen if they make a decision that Russia reacts very negatively to - they could fracture the Olympic movement in perhaps a way that would be unfixable, at least in the near term.

GOLDMAN: Critics say the IOC has a history of deflecting tough decisions. Rarely has the call been stronger for the Committee to confront and act and start to repair a tarnished brand. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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