Here’s what can’t be done about drug cheats in the Olympics. You can’t rewrite history.
So, okay: Use the big stage of the Rio Olympics to rail against clear evidence of Russia’s state-sponsored doping program. But think twice about re-distributing medals won by obviously tainted Russians in recent Games. The non-Russian athletes theoretically in line to inherit ill-gotten hardware may have been juicing as well. (Maybe they’re clean. But maybe they weren’t tested. Or maybe they had their own ways of beating the tests, just without help from bureaucrats.)
It’s not as simple as that old Superman episode in which the Man of Steel righted a wrong by reversing the earth’s rotation, thereby turning the clock back prior to a dastardly deed to make all well again.
The only answer, however unsatisfactory, is a full accounting of events. Such as: Ben Johnson won the 1988 Seoul Olympics 100-meter dash in a world-record 9.79 seconds. And Ben Johnson was found to have used steroids. And a 2012 ESPN documentary on that race offered strong evidence that most—maybe all seven—of Johnson’s fellow 100-meter finalists were guilty of doping at some point in their careers.
The last time a government put its thumb on the Olympic scales with a national doping program involved East Germany in the 1960s and ‘70s, though that widely suspected foul play wasn’t documented for two decades. That’s when the United States Olympic Committee, arguing that its athletes had been victimized, agitated to upgrade or award medals to as many as 50 American swimmers.
Specifically, a USOC test case involved the women’s medley relay team at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, when U.S. star Shirley Babashoff grumbled, after finishing second, that the victorious East German women had deep voices and looked like men. (“We are here to swim, not to sing,” an East German coach famously declared.)
When East German sports authorities did sing in 1997 court testimony, acknowledging their chemically assisted Olympic triumphs, then-USOC president Bill Hybl called it “a matter of fundamental fairness” that the Olympic record book be amended and Babashoff and dozens of her American teammates be presented gold medals.
That didn’t happen, and probably shouldn’t have amid the excruciatingly complex unknowns, shades of gray, legalisms and politics involved. Not to mention anti-doping efforts that continue to be imperfect—even when honest, apolitical drug administrators are involved.
Among those who believed there was no more delicate surgery than rewriting history was Dwight Stones, who held the world high jump record for three years in the mid-1970s but was 0-for-2 in going for Olympic gold, finishing third in 1972 and ’76. In ’72, Stones was beaten by Soviet Juri Tarmac and East German Stefan Junge, two athletes likely operating under government-mandated steroids programs similar to the recent Russian model.
But Stones rejected the USOC effort to revise long-ago results. “It’s a witch hunt,” Stones told me then. “I look at what a great life I’ve had, growing up in the greatest country, where I could do anything I want, go anywhere I want. There is no way we can relate to what it was like not having freedom, growing up in the East German or Soviet system and how compelling the reward schedule was in sports at that time.”
So, leave well enough alone. Just make sure all positive tests and doping admissions—however belated—are added to the record of Olympic results.
Meanwhile, be careful about the International Olympic Committee order to ban all Russians from Rio who have served past suspensions for failed drug tests. Because there are a number of U.S. Olympians in that category being welcomed to Rio, most notably the 2004 Olympic 100-meter champion, Justin Gatlin.
Is it fair to the clean competitors that the IOC has chosen not to issue a blanket rejection of the entire Russian delegation—even though IOC president Thomas Bach has proclaimed “zero tolerance” for illegal substances and called the Russians guilty of a “shocking new dimension in doping” and an “unprecedented level or criminality”?
Then again, is there justice in holding every Russian athlete responsible for Vladimir Putin’s win-at-all-costs, juice-on-the-loose scheme? Might there be at least a few Russians who weren’t involved in, of weren’t aware of, the industrial-scale hanky panky?
The dilemma is that a broad assumption of every Russian’s guilt prior to Rio’s competition feels like profiling. Yet given the cynical, systematic swindle arranged by Russia’s front office, the IOC’s decision to leave the eligibility of Russian athletes to the various federations of the 28 Olympic sports resembles an abdication of its authority.
Former sports journalism colleague Phil Hersh, who covered 17 Olympics, nicely summed up the IOC’s non-action on his Globetrotting Web site by offering a multiple-choice of descriptive words: Shameful, fair, hypocritical, righteous…pass, punt and kick.
I pick “all of the above.” That is: a full accounting of events.