FOR many, the purity of the Olympics was shattered on a fateful September day in 1988 when Des Lynam interrupted a BBC broadcast to confirm what the watching world suspected – sprinter Ben Johnson’s jaw-dropping 100 metres win in Seoul was too good to be true.
“I’ve just been handed a piece of a paper here. If it is right, it will be perhaps the most dramatic story of these Olympics or any other,” said Lynam with characteristic understatement as details emerged of the disgraced Canadian’s positive drugs test.
Lynam’s prescient words are even more pertinent following the International Olympic Committee’s inexplicable decision not to expel Russia from next month’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
The context is this. Johnson was just one athlete, though subsequent events revealed many of his rivals on the 100m start line to have been tainted. Russia is a sporting superpower guilty of state-sponsored doping from 2011 onwards thanks to James Bond-style espionage too implausible for most spy novels.
Yet, in many respects, the current crisis stems from the IOC’s supine response to the Johnson affair 28 summers ago. Suspended for two years, the Canadian cheat only received a life ban when caught again in 1993.
If the global sporting authorities imposed bans which were genuine deterrents, the Olympic movement would not now be in danger of losing the most important race of all – the race for credibility.
A casual response has given succour to those prepared to use drugs because the worst they could expect, if caught, was a short-term suspension rather than long-term bans with far-reaching financial repercussions.
Even before Russia took cheating to this deplorable extreme, the Olympics was risking ridicule because controversial American sprinter Justin Gatlin, twice banned for drugs offences, had emerged as one of the favourites for the 100 metres in Rio.
It’s not impossible that the discredited Gatlin will win the greatest prize of all; he came within one hundredth of a second of usurping Usain Bolt at last year’s World Championships in Beijing. Athletics was that close to losing the remnants of its tarnished reputation and once again requires Bolt, the poster boy of global sport, to become its saviour.
What a pity that the Olympic movement has dropped the baton at this profound moment by leaving it to the governing bodies of individual sports to determine whether Russian competitors can perform – or not.
Talk about a betrayal of the core values of friendship, respect and excellence which supposedly underpin the sanctity of the Olympic movement.
First, friendship. The IOC clearly places a premium on its “friendship” with Vladimir Putin’s imperialist Russia which carried out a programme of state cheating. This culminated with potentially ‘positive’ tests from the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi being smuggled out of a laboratory through a mouse hole with secret service assistance before tamper-proof bottles were opened and filled with ‘clean’ samples. It’s perhaps the greatest deception in sport, certainly the most audacious.
If the Olympic movement can’t act after its president, Thomas Bach, described this cheating as a “shocking and unprecedented attack on the integrity of sport”, when will it take a stand?
Next, respect. Given how cynicism is helping to corrupt global politics because the public have lost faith in their elected leaders, the mere presence of Russian competitors in Rio detracts from the endeavour of all those competitors who play by the rules. Why should clean athletes be tarnished by suspicion and scepticism?
Finally, excellence. The Olympics should be the pinnacle of sport and this is exemplified by the reaction of Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee, the Leeds brothers who won triathlon gold and bronze, respectively, in London four years ago, to the news that their great rival Javier Gomez will miss Rio through injury.
Their heartfelt expressions of regret demonstrate the true spirit of sportsmanship. Yet how will they be expected to react if a Russian rival wins in Brazil? Regrettably, the most heroic and inspirational of performances will be overshadowed by the IOC’s spinelessness.
It’s quite simple. Russia should be banned from future Olympics until the performance of its competitors satisfies the World Anti-Doping Agency, a body which feels betrayed by the IOC’s weakness.
Any competitor convicted of a doping violation in Rio should receive a lifetime ban with no exemptions. Look how long it has taken for cycling, and the Tour de France, to regain its credibility after multiple doping cases culminated in the Lance Armstrong scandal.
And, if Fifa wants to win back respect, it should strip Russia of the next World Cup – the awarding of this event remains bedevilled by corruption allegations.
Nothing less will to suffice if global events are not to suffer a similar fate to international politics and win the race to the bottom because of a collective failure to stand up for the purity of the Olympics and those athletes whose values represent the best of sport and humanity.