As Olympics near, how can we still not know the size or shape of the Russian contingent?
By BARRY SVRLUGA | The Washington Post | Published: February 8, 2018
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — We should have taken odds, back in December, on how smoothly this would go. The day the International Olympic Committee announced that it had "banned" the Russian Olympic Committee from the Pyeongchang Winter Games, we should have called Vegas and gotten an over/under line: How many Russians will compete in South Korea?
These Games begin not in days, but in hours. And we do not know the answer. That is, of course, absurd and unfair to the athletes who have assembled in the mountains here, ready to go against whoever shows up. And yet we have the IOC staring at the Court of Arbitration for Sport staring at the World Anti-Doping Agency, a collective, bureaucratic shrug.
The violations in question — you know, those that an independent report concluded were part of a systematic, state-sponsored doping program in which dirty samples were swapped for clean ones — weren't committed last week or last month or last year. This was four years ago at the Sochi Games.
And yet, the Opening Ceremonies are Friday. The Olympic Athletes from Russia — as they're being called, because the IOC managed to successfully ban the Russian flag and the Russian anthem — will walk into the Olympic Stadium. But we don't know who will emerge from behind the curtain.
Viktor Ahn, who has six gold medals in short-track speedskating? Maybe. Alexander Legkov, who owns gold in cross-country skiing? Quite possibly.
That over/under number? Had Vegas set it at 200 Russian athletes back in December, I would have scoffed and laid it all on the under.
Now, considering how the past two months have unfolded, put me down for 100,000 South Korean won on the over. (Don't freak out. That's like $92.)
Here are the largest athlete delegations in South Korea: the United States at 240, Canada at 226, Switzerland at 169, and Russia — no, no, sorry, Russia is banned — the makeshift "OAR" with 168.
And that's as of Thursday afternoon in Korea. That doesn't count the 45 who were appealing at the CAS on Thursday — until the group adjourned for the day, leaving those appeals unresolved. Throw in a new group that includes at least six athletes, and maybe we'll find out Friday that the Russian contingent will be 210 strong.
Who knows? No one here.
"I'm saddened by the fact that we are in CAS all day, every day dealing with these issues," Craig Reedie, the president of WADA, said here Thursday.
Many of the Russians who show up will be medal threats. Among those who argued her case in front of CAS at a South Korean resort was Elena Nikitina, the 2014 bronze medalist in skeleton. That medal came by four hundredths of a second over American Katie Uhlaender.
Here is Uhlaender's ride since Dec. 5, when the IOC made its original "ban," as well as a plan to award new medalists in events such as women's skeleton: disbelieving and elated, then disillusioned and disheartened. CAS reinstated 28 Russian athletes on Feb. 1 — the first day Uhlaender woke up in Pyeongchang, ready to prepare for her fourth Olympics.
"Initially, when the IOC took such a strong stance to ban Russia and suspend the federation completely, it gave the athletes who were holding onto the spirit of sport hope, and kind of strengthened our Olympic spirit," Uhlaender said Thursday. "And when CAS took that away, it did the opposite. So I think that we're all turning to the IOC for reform and to take a strong stance to give us that spirit back. We're holding onto an Olympic spirit that feels like it's dying."
That clarifies exactly what this is about. What's at stake isn't really which Russian is allowed to compete and which isn't. What's at stake is the faith of the athletes who, when all the corporate advertising and white-tablecloth dinners are stripped away, make up the core of the Olympics.
And here's the killer part, too: At some point, presumably before the torch is lit, we'll know the Russian team — and this still won't be over.
Follow the timeline: WADA declared the Russians' version of an anti-doping authority noncompliant with WADA standards and procedures in November 2015. The independent report from Canadian professor Richard McLaren that outlined the Russians' operations was issued in two parts, both in 2016, which left chaos leading into and coming out of the Rio Games that summer. And finally, in December, the report from Swiss politician Samuel Schmid led to the IOC's ban of Russia.
That's a plodding process. So could we be sitting here, with the 2020 Tokyo Games about to begin, with the same questions about the same sanctions?
"I hope not, clearly," Reedie said.
That's not the same as, "Don't be ridiculous."
American athletes have been among the most vocal in asking for more stringent testing standards internationally. On this, Uhlaender makes an interesting point: "Our country has also had some of the worst offenses." The United States needed change. Now, it has year-long, in-and-out-of-season testing of both urine and blood performed by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. American athletes said they frequently have conversations with rivals from other countries about how often their tested. Uhlaender said in one season, she was tested 19 times.
"We don't want to lighten testing on us," said American skeleton athlete John Daly. "We just want the rest of the world as strict as us."
To which, Reedie responded: "I can understand their irritation."
This is now more than irritating. It's inexcusable. Look, I'm not a zealot about doping, and it's my belief — realistic or cynical, depending on how you look at it — that the robbers in these cases will always be ahead of the cops. "Doping," as WADA official Ben McDevitt said Thursday, "is not going away."
But the problem here, the issue that threatens to taint these Games even before they begin in full, is that the very athletes who could exhilarate and inspire over the next two weeks — those are the people who feel like the Olympic ideals, ideals in which they believe, are under assault. They were unknowingly attacked in Sochi, when the Russians pulled off their operation. And now, four years later, with the next Winter Games about to begin, they're under attack still.
How many Russians will end up competing here? Who knows? But take the over.