This week saw the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) unanimously decide to ban Russia from all major sport competitions for four years as punishment for manipulating data relating to systematic doping in Russian sport. On the face of it this seems a very punitive measure, but upon scrutiny certain caveats are apparent that have led many to argue the decision doesn’t go far enough. So, what does the ruling mean and what purpose does it serve?
The decision means Russian athletes will not be able to compete under the Russian flag in major global championships for the next four years. Whilst this includes events such as the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, the 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics and the 2022 Football World Cup, it does not include the 2020 European Football Championships. Further, Russian athletes will be able to compete in such Championships under a neutral banner if there is no evidence implicating them in past doping activities. Thus, whilst the headlines suggest a highly punitive reaction by the WADA, under scrutiny the decision is not as severe as it first appears.
For this reason, some have been left unsatisfied by the decision. For instance, the WADA’s athlete commission were disappointed as they had called for an outright ban of all Russian athletes in international competition. Likewise, Travis Tygart – the CEO of the United States Anti-Doping Agency – responded saying “To allow Russia to escape a complete ban is yet another devastating blow to clean athletes, the integrity of sport and the rule of law”. Similarly, Jack Robertson – who led the original investigation into Russian’s state-sponsored doping – suggested “…WADA has proven, yet again, it does not possess the necessary desire or fortitude to fulfil its mission as clean athlete watchdog.”.
If many in global sport believe the punishment was too lenient, surely this decision has been well received in Russia? Not so it seems. Many Russian athletes – particularly those that were too young to compete when the Russian doping regime was in operation – are asking why they should be punished for something they had no part in. Similarly, the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said the decision “…is part of anti-Russian hysteria which has become chronic.”. Whilst the chronic nature of punishments against Russian sport may be accurate, this is due to the continued refusal of the Russian government to acknowledge their engagement in systematic doping. If the Russian government truly want to change their situation, they need to move away from a position of deception and denial and provide full details of the doping programme they sponsored.
Whilst an outright ban of Russian athletes would have made a much stronger statement, the WADA’s decision is not a punishment in name only as some have suggested. Whilst Russian athletes will still compete in global competitions throughout the period of suspension, the likely impact on Russia’s reputation should not be underestimated. Government investment in sport is largely predicated on perceived positive outcomes of sporting success for a country’s image and political influence. The negative impact of this decision on such outcomes is likely a significant concern for the Russian government. The inability to display the Russian flag when athletes competing under a neutral flag are victorious also limits any potential benefits for Russia’s national reputation and standing too. Thus, whilst a stricter punishment was warranted and would have been preferred, it is important to recognise the reputational damage this decision incurs for Russia.
Overall, it seems that in trying to keep everyone happy, the WADA may have left everyone at least a little dissatisfied. It is likely they were well aware of this when making this decision though, which suggests this decision was as much about politics as it was about upholding the integrity of sport. However, with a global anti-doping system that is heavily funded by international governments, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by this.