In December, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) banned Russia from Olympic and global sports for four years as a consequence of the nation’s history of state-run doping. Details of Russia‘s doping initiatives first surfaced amidst the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and a large-scale attempt to falsify and smudge doping records has since been uncovered, prompting WADA action.
This battle, entrapping not just athletes but fans, world leaders, sport governing bodies and media, has been raging for years. There have been compelling documentaries, limelight finger wags and intense political flare-ups that reflect larger, far-reaching global tensions. At times, it can be difficult to parse out not only who to blame, but who to punish (and how to ultimately eliminate doping in sport).
In the months since that ‘ban’ was announced, there has continued to be confusion among the general public as to what the terms actually mean. Weekly there are comments on SwimSwam asking ‘but I thought Russia was banned?’ In reality, the sanctions have the most to do with representation. Specifically, this ban means that the Russian flag, name and anthem are not allowed in Tokyo or at other global sporting events.
So, there will be no Russian flag on swim caps, jerseys, singlets, leotards or other equipment. Announcers will not call out ‘in lane four, Evgeny Rylov, of Russia,’ over the natatorium speakers in the 200-meter backstroke final; Russian athletes will be referenced and acknowledged under a neutral flag. Russian medalists will not hear their anthem play on the podium.
Russian athletes can, however, still participate in team events, including relays. This was borne out at the 2018 Winter Olympics, when the “Olympic Athletes from Russia” team won gold in men’s ice hockey. Swimmers will generally still qualify for the Tokyo Olympic Games in the same way as they would have without the ‘ban,’ both individually and in relays.
Another arm of the ban holds back Russian sport and government officials from attending the Olympics and other global sporting events in an official capacity, and Russia cannot host international events during the ban. Further, Russian officials can’t serve on governance committees of any doping code signatory; that would include a FINA committee, for example.
But, Russian athletes can still compete in Tokyo so long as they do so under a neutral flag, and so long as they are not serving an individual ban and so long as they are not implicated in non-compliance, including being named in the McLaren Report. This is how it went in Sochi. Granted, the ban still restricts Russian involvement and participation (mostly on the administrative side), and stamps out optics like the name, flag and anthem. Russian athletes, however, will certainly still be competing for medals in Tokyo.
The ban is more bark than bite, and it does not appease everybody, least of all the former head of Russia‘s national anti-doping laboratory, Grigory Rodchenkov. The orchestrator of Russia‘s doping strategy, who has since come forward about Russia‘s wrongdoings and fled the country, recently gave an interview to BBC saying that all Russian athletes should be barred from Tokyo.
Rodchenkov, who spoke so freely in the renowned documentary Icarus, talked to BBC by video call with a veil over his face and a straw hat over his head– after escaping to the USA following his tell-all to WADA, not even his lawyer knows his exact whereabouts.