KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY —- In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams’s superior beings build a giant computer to come up with the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. In Olympic terms that is the task with which Thomas Bach and his colleagues are charged today.
After months of buck-passing and diplomatic double-speak in pursuit of a magic formula to achieve the impossibility of keeping everyone happy, the president and executive board of the International Olympic Committee must reach a definite verdict about what to do about Russia?
With the Opening Ceremony of the Rio Games a mere two weeks away the clock has run down. All the faux-surprise huffing and puffing has been exposed for what it is and was: vacuous. The only certainty is that whatever Bach & Co decide no-one will be satisfied.
The issue is black and white: Kick Russia out of the Games as punishment – forget that weasel word ‘sanctions’ – for running a state-led twin-pronged strategy of doping and cover-up . . . or tell the individual international sport federations to do their own dirty work. This, to be frank, is what they should all have done in the first place.
Prosecution evidence is piled high. Investigative reporter Hajo Seppelt’s work with the Stepanovs led to Dick Pound’s inquiry then came Grigory Rodchenkov’s interview with the New York Times which prompted Richard McLaren’s 57-day investigatory blitz.
Common denominator? In both cases it took the media to kick sport’s bosses into looking at themselves in the mirror of public disdain and distrust. Many do not accept the twisted images grimacing back at them. IAAF president Lord Seb Coe’s denunciation of a “declaration of war on my sport” was misjudged but representative of the views of many of his blinkered counterparts in other disciplines.
Sir Craig Reedie’s World Anti-Doping Agency does not come out scot-free, so to speak, from the farrago. One of its handicaps is a problem of perception, particularly from beyond sport, that it employs far more clout than it really enjoys.
WADA has never tested anyone. Its role is to rule on the debatable differences between illegal substances and legal supplements. The complexity was illustrated by the meldonium muddle. Here WADA was found wanting in terms of research, analysis, exposition and, crucially, communication.
A core weakness for WADA is that it is funded 50-50 by the IOC and national governments which have more important demands for their cash in this age of austerity than on a bunch of cheating sportsmen and women.
It is both educative and illustrative that only a minority of countries criminalise sports cheats whether in the spheres of doping or results manipulation.
For better or worse however, WADA sets the parameters by which the international federations are supposed to be bound; those same international federations which have kicked their can back to the IOC.
Picking up the bill
To be fair, the IOC asked for it.
This is a ‘mere’ event organiser which, in overweening self-aggrandisement and in pursuit of self- justification, has set itself up as the Grand Panjandrum of the sporting world.
OK, now it must pay the bill for its five or even seven-star existence.
For all the bandwagon jumping of western politicians and media (The Times produced a jarring blur of editorial/news lines in organising a ‘kick Russia out’ letter), the world of sport is by no means united over the response. As several IFs have protested, doping is no big issue for them so why should ‘their’ Russians be penalised?
Several veteran IOC-watchers have fretted that the mood music has been orchestrated only by evidence for the prosecution, not the defence (Perry Mason might make mischief asking about the provenance of the microscopic scratches on the Sochi sample bottles, for example).
Here Russia has only itself to blame. It has allowed any case for the defence to go by default. We have had either Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko saying “yes. . . but” or President Vladimir Putin fulminating in predictable fashion about a dastardly, US-led geopolitical conspiracy.
(Mutko is the most intriguing figure in sports politics today. He and Putin have made their long journey from St Petersburg together and he appears immune from harm. Presumably he knows where the bodies are buried, figuratively speaking of course).
The IOC’s problem with Russia is, frankly, America.
The United States does not ‘do’ international team sport like most of the rest of the world. Gridiron? No opposition. Baseball? The World Series is all-American.
Hence the Olympic Games (until the recent discovery of the World Cup) was the only major sporting stage on which Team USA met Team Rest-of-the-World.
In the Cold War era, significantly the television era, the Olympics represented not only the struggle for world athletic but political and ideological dominance. Paranoia and obsession in equal measure on both sides.
Hence the tit for tat boycotts of the 1980s; hence, also, the vast sums invested by US television in keeping Pierre de Coubertin’s Olympic dream afloat (coincidentally maintaining a favourable financial balance for the USOC even if not, now, as favourable as before the Chicago bid fiasco taught Colorado Springs a lesson in financial pragmatism).
So, take Russia out of the Olympics and what is left? Answer: A conceptually and financially devalued Games. Contrarily, proponents of a blanket ban would say keeping Russia aboard means a discredited Games.
Anyone who has watched US television coverage of the Olympics knows that the focus is on home heroes. It takes the magnitude of a Comaneci or a Bolt to prick the bubble of powerful, highly profitable home-focused insularity.
The bottom line for TV, advertisers and sponsors is also the bottom line for the IOC.
Here is the dilemma for Bach & Co this weekend. They have sought advice on the legal rights and wrongs of a blanket ban amid fears of turning the clock back three decades. Thus, at the least, we can be assured of a salvo of new paper-pushing strictures, rules and regulations.
Beyond that Bach and his board may finish by telling the international federations it’s up to them to shoulder responsibility for the credibility of the Olympics, the Games goose which lays their golden eggs.
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the computer Deep Thought decided that the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything was . . . 42.
Thomas Bach must wish it were that simple.