“What about us?” My Opinion on the WADA Decision for Russian Athletes

“What about us?
What about all the times you said you had the answers?
What about us?
What about all the broken happy ever afters?
What about us?
What about all the plans that ended in disaster?”

– P!nk

On Monday, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) issued a ban on Russian athletes from competing in major sports competitions for four years following the massive state-sponsored doping scandal. Although appeals are possible and the ban has not been set in stone, it is a monumental decision. Currently, Russia is a dominant force in the sport of figure skating, and the exclusion of Russians from competition would drastically change the state of the sport. This issue has been fiercely debated from both sides by sports officials, former athletes, and committee chairs, but today’s blog post is simply an opinion piece from the perspective of a longtime sports fan.

First of all, I am glad that the WADA is taking action. The very idea that a government would arrange a major doping program, then take such efforts to cover it up, is appalling to me. It’s like something you would read in a dystopian novel. As the leading organization for clean sport worldwide, it is WADA’s responsibility to punish the guilty parties and prevent such blatant violations of the rules in the future. However, I’m not sure if this punishment is the most effective and ethical option.

Since the doping scandal was first exposed following the 2014 Winter Olympics, the general opinion in Western sports bodies is that Russia should face a blanket ban with no exceptions. This would definitely ensure that no Russian athletes would be found guilty of doping, because no Russian athletes would be allowed to compete. On the Russian side, there was outrage and accusations that it was a political ploy by the West stemming from Cold War tensions. In the middle were those who suggested a partial ban and a case-by-case examination. This policy was applied at the 2016 Summer Olympics, but debate still circled about the criteria required to ban an individual athlete. Harsher measures were taken at the 2018 Olympics: dozens of competitors were barred despite no previous doping history, Russian officials were banned from attending the events, and Russian athletes were not even allowed to wear their team colors or hear their national anthem when they won. Despite all these precautions, two Russian athletes still turned up with positive samples in the 2018 Olympics. After the Russian doping officials refused to comply with WADA’s investigation, this latest ban was issued.

It’s only been a few days since the decision was made, but the world is already in chaos about it. Many in support of Russian athletes are horrified at the proposition, while officials in the fight against doping are pushing for even heavier punishment. I am personally a moderate in this debate. I don’t believe Russia should get off without any liability, but I also don’t believe all athletes deserve to be banned simply because of their nationality. Here are the arguments I have a hard time hearing.

“They should be glad there’s still a chance to compete as neutral athletes.”

The Olympic Games has always been about national pride. Athletes wouldn’t come into the opening ceremony waving flags and wearing team colors if it wasn’t. The Russian government created a state-sponsored doping program because success in sports gave them national pride. It is the Russian government who should be ashamed.

Many of these athletes become interested in sports through watching the Olympics. Little children sit around the TV and watch athletes receive medals while their flag flies above their heads and their anthem blares out loud and proud across the stands. This is the image of the Olympic dream, the image that keeps these children motivated their whole lives as they suffer injuries and setbacks in the sport. They cling to this image because it is the image the Olympic movement has promised them.

Alina Zagitova, the reigning Olympic champion in ladies’ figure skating, experienced this at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games. She was just fifteen years old, and she had dreamed of that Olympic moment since childhood: Russian anthem, Russian flag, Russian team jacket. Instead, she was put up on the podium in the gray and white uniform of the “neutral” athletes, staring up at the flag of the organization that had taken her own flag away while their anthem played in the background. Instead of a moment of victory, she was basically sent out there holding a sign saying “My country did something bad and therefore I should be ashamed of myself”. The goal was to call out corrupt government and sports officials, but instead, it ruined the Olympic moment of a teenage girl. Yes, this was better than if she had not been able to compete at all, but she – a clean athlete who had never been to the Olympics before – still didn’t deserve this label of shame.

“It’s only for four years. They should be glad it’s not a lifetime ban.”

Four years is a long time in the world of sports. Let’s take the Russian Olympic figure skating team from 2014: Evgeni Plushenko, Yulia Lipnitskaya, Adelina Sotnikova, Tatiana Volosozhar/Maxim Trankov, Ksenia Stolbova/Fedor Klimov, Vera Bazarova/Yuri Larionov, Ekaterina Bobrova/Dmitri Soloviev, Elena Ilinykh/Nikita Katsalapov, and Victoria Sinitsina/Ruslan Zhiganshin. Of all those names, only Stolbova/Klimov and Bobrova/Soloviev qualified to the 2018 Olympics (and Stolbova/Klimov were banned despite no prior doping history anyways). Figure skating is such a highly competitive sport that many skaters only get one or two chances to qualify for the Olympics, especially in the ladies’ and pairs’ events. To take four years from their career is essentially forcing them to retire. With the direction the sport has taken in recent years, there are no guarantees of qualifying to three or four Olympics in your lifetime, so the “better luck next time” approach isn’t really helpful.

“But WADA is just trying to protect innocent athletes from the corruption of doping.”

I know that. I know this is a terribly difficult situation, and WADA has never had to deal with a doping crisis of this scale before. I don’t think there’s any correct solution to this problem that would stop the doping problem and keep innocent athletes out of the crossfire. There is so much politics and pressure from various parties around the world that finding a middle ground is nearly impossible. And at the end of the day, I do believe WADA is trying to do the right thing. However, at the end of the day, the goal is to give clean athletes the best chance at success. And banning clean athletes from the Olympics because of their nationality is not giving them the best chance at success. That is why I have always opposed the blanket ban, no matter how effective it is. That’s like dropping a bomb on a city to kill the tyrant who controls it. The tyrant is dead, but so are thousands of civilians. While the consequences are not nearly as dire as loss of life, the principle remains the same.

I’m going to use an example from the Bible for a second – not because I’m trying to preach a sermon here, but because it’s a familiar story that illustrates my point. Jesus had twelve apostles, and one of them – Judas – betrayed him. But some people look at this scenario and think, “What if the other eleven are involved too? Who knows if Matthew and Mark are scheming something behind Jesus’s back? We can’t prove that any of them are faithful, so let’s hang all twelve apostles as traitors.” And I just don’t think that’s right.

I know this is a controversial opinion. I know even some of my closest friends disagree with this viewpoint and believe a full-blown crackdown is the best way to go, and I respect their opinions. However, the International Olympic Committee, the World Anti-Doping Agency, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport were given the duty to keep sport fair, and right now, I don’t think they’re doing that. I will continue to closely follow this story as time goes on, and perhaps the situation will change by the time the 2022 Winter Olympics are upon us. In the meantime, I support all the clean athletes whose careers hang in the balance and hope they receive justice.

—-

This week has been a difficult one in the skating fandom. With the vandalism of the Olympic skating rink in Torino, fans calling Interpol to complain about unfair judging, and Morgan Cipres exposed for sexual misconduct while his coaches allegedly covered it up, the sport feels like an ugly place lately. There are so many things that need to change, but these are the times when we need to hang onto our own goodness and fight to make a difference. That’s why this week’s positivity shoutout goes to my incredible friend @MeaghanRj on Twitter. Meaghan and I have been talking for over two years now, and she is one of the few people who actually understands all my weird and silly thoughts. She is smart, insightful, and levelheaded in a fandom where craziness has become the status quo. She calls out wrong behavior when she sees it without seeming high and mighty, and she sees the skaters as actual human beings, something that’s much too easy to forget. At the same time, she’s hilarious, fun, and enthusiastic about her favorite skaters. If I had a dollar for every time I died laughing from something she said about Sui/Han, I would be a Crazy Rich Asian. She’s always the first person to read my stories, even the stupidest little sappy fanfics about pair skaters who will (probably) never end up together. Whenever I have a hard day, I can count on her to cheer me up, and if I just need to talk about something difficult, she listens. It’s so nice having someone who just gets it, and I hope you have someone like that in your life too. Meaghan, thanks for being my friend through the ups and downs of this crazy life!

As always, happy skating, and may the odds be ever in your favor.

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