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The Real Reason for Banning the Russia Team From the Winter Olympics

The Real Reason for Banning the Russia Team From the Winter Olympics
The Russian Olympic Committee and their staff are specifically accused of state-sponsored doping. However, there is little evidence to support this claim. What is the real reason?

Professor Stephen Wagg from the Leeds Beckett University where he currently lectures in the mass media and the politics of international sport answers this question.

Professor Wagg indicates that there seems to be very little evidence of doping having occurred, and the verdict rests on a report by a Canadian lawyer, Paul McLaren. "I don't think that there is a great deal of evidence beyond the testimony of the man who used to run the Russian Olympic operation, who is now under witness protection in the United States….The fact that he is under witness protection does make it difficult for him to be interrogated and seeing how his accusations hold up." Professor Wagg comments.

This is a fairly Kafkaesque situation. Professor Wagg points out: "Regardless of individual nations and how they conduct themselves, it is an open secret that doping goes on across the world and moreover, in the words of a member of the Olympic Committee some decades ago:  'all sports people today are essentially patients.' They are surrounded by medical teams and they do what they do within the framework of sports science. So what is being invoked in all of these disputes is the idea of the clean, scientifically unaided athlete, but that is a myth that disappeared a long time ago. Certainly, there has been no such thing since the 1940s, or the 1950s. The second thing is that some kind of new Cold War is emerging driven by politics in the United States….Russia is in the doghouse in western politics so I don't think this can realistically be divorced from the current controversy over the Russian Olympic team." The fact that Russia is now a competitive capitalist country is downplayed. "I think what is important is that Russia is seen as somehow the 'other,' the enemy," says Professor Wagg.

Exclusion of a whole national team from an Olympic Games is something that has never happened before, although countries have previously boycotted the Olympics. "I think the important element in this particular episode is the word 'state.' The Olympic movement or the Olympic industry as it is more accurately called has always claimed to be non-political. I think what is crucial in this current controversy is that although doping is widely acknowledged, in countries like the United States it takes place through private initiatives. A lot of athletes have been banned in the United States, and Canada and Britain but very often these drugs have been administered by private laboratories. What the I.O.C. has been keen to point out is that the performance-enhancing drugs [in Russia] have been administered by state actors. That, in turn, raises the Spector of the communism that was supposedly laid to rest in the late 1980s….This is the most important element in isolating Russia in the Olympics at the present time."

The Russians are not exactly pleased about the IOC's decision. Maria Zakharova, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman said the ban was "part of a global attempt to isolate Russia based on 'unsubstantiated' accusations… Russia would survive the sanctions with the same defiance as it did the Second World War and the collapse of the Soviet Union."  One reason that this is such a blow to the Russians is the importance that has been attached to the Olympics in terms of PR on a national scale. As Professor Wagg says:  "If you look at what has happened to the Olympics over the last 20 years, they have been increasingly regarded as a source of national prestige, if you have a high medal count and in particular if you stage the Olympics then it's a sign that you are a major player on the world stage… what the IOC has done is deprive Russia of a big medal count and that will hurt."

Other themes discussed in this program include the rise of nationalism in general and a possible connection between the snub to Russia as being a consequence of its hosting the World Cup next year.

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