Russia shouldn’t get away with cheating at the Olympics

The Observer editorial board

A worker sweeps at the Olympics Aquatics Stadium as preparations continue for the Rio Olympics.
A worker sweeps at the Olympics Aquatics Stadium as preparations continue for the Rio Olympics. AP

We’ve always been suckers for the Olympic Games. Summer or winter, doesn’t matter. The moment that brassy Olympic theme starts playing, we’re suddenly big fans of athletic events we haven’t watched since ... the last Olympics.

But with each passing Games, it seems like more shine comes off those five famous rings. Rio, for example, is a mess. Its police force has said it can’t guarantee the safety of athletes and spectators. Its waters are badly contaminated. Every now and then, a human body washes ashore or floats by.

Still, Rio is hardly the first Olympics host city to have problems leading up to the games, and Brazil is hardly the first host country that seems destined for Olympic catastrophe. In the end, most of those troubles are usually forgotten – or perhaps, ignored – once the games begin and we focus on athletes and competition.

That might be a little harder to do this year, because of one unavoidable five-ring fact:

Russia is cheating, and it’s getting away with it.

A report last month from the World Anti-Doping Agency revealed what many suspected about Russian athletes: Their government operated a “systematic scheme” of administering performance-enhancing drugs and covering up the evidence at the 2014 Winter Olympics. Russia hosted those Games in Sochi.

During those games, Russian Federal Security Service officials tampered with urine test bottles, got their people in test labs and swapped out urine samples in a hole cut into a laboratory wall. Cheating also occurred in other international competitions, the report said.

Already, WADA had issued a separate report that revealed systematic doping in Russia’s track and field program, resulting in most all of those athletes being banned from the Rio Olympics. The doping agency recommended the same for the entire Russian Olympic team.

Instead, the IOC announced last week a far more forgiving approach to discipline. Russian athletes who want to participate in Rio will be given a case-by-case review carried out by their sport’s international federation, and a three-person IOC panel will hear appeals.

The IOC stresses that athletes are presumed guilty heading into their hearings, and already, the International Weightlifting Federation banned the Russian weightlifting team. But given how little time remains before events begin, the process will be more rushed than thoughtful. Add in 28 different sets of judges – the number of federations that govern Olympic sports – and you have what promises to be an uneven, haphazard application of justice.

The IOC’s path should have been simple. Russia has cheated in thousands of cases in international competition. The deception was engineered by the Russian government. The entire Russian team should have been barred from Olympic competition, beginning with Rio.

Now, Russian athletes could march under the Russian flag, mocking clean athletes and tainting the Olympic ideal of “pure sport.” It makes the Games a little bit less of a must see – and that Olympic theme a little less joyful to the ear.