Nick Westby: One scandal away from Olympics no longer having a place in sport

The '˜Olympic spirit' is an ideal that rings rather hollow at present.

Usain Bolt (Picture: PA Wire).

It is a sentiment that is meant to represent hope, unity and peace through sport, yet the dawning of the 31st Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro this Friday will arrive shrouded in negativity, either because of the drugs scandal that has plagued the sport, the heightened terror threat of the modern world we inhabit, or more natural hazards like the Zika virus.

The Olympic Games is front-page news for all the wrong reasons.

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It was ever thus in the build-up to the planet’s biggest sporting extravaganza.

Remember London 2012? Venues would not be ready in time, the delivery was over-budget, the private security firm hired to make people safe sent out an SOS days before the start of the Games saying they were under-staffed.

The Army stepped in, the Games started to packed-out venues, a nation was uplifted, and soon every problem was forgotten. Once the gold medals start being won and the world records start falling over in Brazil, the narrative will shift to a positive one once more.

But this time the stain of negativity will take a lot longer to remove.

The Russian doping scandal hangs over the credibility of these Games like never before.

The state-sponsored doping of their athletes has thrown the build-up to the Games into chaos.

The International Athletics Federation (IAAF) were the first to act and banned Russian athletes from competing in Rio.

As the scandal spread to other sports, the calls were widespread for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to take a hardline stance and ban the entire Russian Olympic team from competing in this summer’s Games and Paralympic Games.

The IOC ducked their responsibility to humanity and decency, and passed the buck to the governing bodies of their individual sports, some of which duly banned Russia from competing, others of which have shown leniency.

What we, the armchair fan, the believer in sport, are left with is an Olympic Games in which we have to ask can we believe what we are seeing.

The Russian doping scandal is one of the largest acts of cheating since the East German-state sponsored doping of the Eighties.

It has had the kind of seismic effect on sport that the banning of Ben Johnson did after the 1988 men’s 100m final in Seoul – when the past, present and future of an event that is supposed to be the pinnacle of Olympic sport was thrown into doubt.

It is up there with the deception of Lance Armstrong.

But is it widespread? Is state-sponsored doping in a country an isolated incident – or are there other nations equally as guilty of blatant cheating that have not been uncovered yet and might not be until long after this summer’s festivities?

Every time one of the remaining Russian athletes steps onto the podium in Rio, they will be greeted by boos from a sceptical audience.

But how much of what we see over the next fortnight is believable? How big a mark has this scandal left on the sport? Ten days ago, at the Anniversary Games in London, American hurdler Kendra Harrison broke the world record in the 100m hurdles. It was a mark that had stood for 28 years, since those infamous Johnson-dominated Seoul Games.

To watch Harrison in action, was to watch athletics as it should be. Her technique was flawless, her stride powerful as she cut through the London air like a blade, leaving her rivals a good 10m in her wake. It was a phenomenal sight and quickened the pulse.

But the nature of her sport is that such super-human efforts now come with a caveat, a concern, a nagging doubt in the back of the mind.

The good in us wants to believe – as I did in her performance that night – that what we are witnessing is pure and true.

Yet athletics has created cynics among those that once were smitten.

Athletics – the blue riband event of the Olympics – arrives in Rio at a crossroads, just as it did in Beijing at the world championships last year, and as it always will, thanks to the legacy of East Germany, Johnson and now Russia.

Twelve months ago, Usain Bolt – the figurehead of his sport – lined up against Justin Gatlin, a former champion once banned for taking drugs, in the world 100m final in what was effectively billed as good versus evil.

Good prevailed that night, and the sense once more on the eve of a major athletics event is that the future integrity of his sport rests in the hands of the charismatic Jamaican.

Athletics, and indeed the Olympics, can ill-afford another scandal, that will shatter belief among those who idolise their heroes, and leave the rest of us cold.

Otherwise, the term ‘Olympic spirit’ will be lost for ever.