Moira Gordon: IOC can’t put down welcome mat for drug cheats

Yuliya Stepanova blew the whistle on Russian doping. Picture: Getty
Yuliya Stepanova blew the whistle on Russian doping. Picture: Getty
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Adam Pengilly is the latest British athlete to speak out on the row over Russia’s inclusion in this summer’s Olympics.

The two-time Olympian, in the skeleton, is a member of the IOC’s Athletes’ Commission and one of four British IOC members, and like the rest of the world he is awaiting the decision of the IOC executive board, which is expected to announce some time today whether it will be implementing a collective ban on Russia following claims of state-sponsored doping.

Earlier this week, based on widespread evidence of substance abuse, the ban on Russia’s track and field athletes competing was upheld by the Court of Arbitration. They had been asked to intervene by the Russian Olympic Committee, and 68 athletes who declared the IAAF’s ruling unfair. But things could get worse, if the IOC take the strong stance most sports fans are seeking.

Pengilly was speaking to the BBC when he said: “Somewhat reluctantly, I am led to one conclusion: exclusion from Rio. I say reluctantly because there are very probably clean Russian athletes, and they will suffer, and this is nothing short of terrible. It’s an incredibly tough decision. There’s no fair outcome for everyone.”

No, there is not. But fairness has long since bolted and by allowing Russia in, the IOC would be putting down the welcome mat for drugs cheats and there would still be clean athletes who would suffer, as has been the case for decades, from Yvonne Murray finishing behind cheat Tetyana Dorovskikh in the 1988 Olympic 3,000m final to Yelena Arzhakova denying Lynsey Sharp European 800m gold in 2012.

Given the epidemic, the only thing that seems surprising about drugs cheating now is that there was genuine shock when Ben Johnson was disqualified and stripped of his gold medal in Seoul in 1988. I was a young, wide-eyed, sports enthusiast, who set alarm clocks so I could get up in the middle of the night (without my parents knowing) to watch the big finals, whether they be on the track, in the pool, in boats on the water, in velodromes, or on pitches. For me, it was magical and inspiring watching the best in the world take on the ultimate challenge, knowing that they would have to wait another four years for another shot at an Olympic podium place to roll round.

But now, older, wiser and, yes, more cynical, I now know I wasn’t always awestruck by the best. Often I was placing people on pedestals that time eventually proved had no place being there. Finding out a hero is a zero is never easy to take on board. I, like many fans, suffered.

It was disappointing for us but, for the sport, for the Olympics, the damage was more deep-set. I played lots of sports but I never pursued an interest in athletics after that. It was never my favourite participation sport anyway, but that 100m final scunnered me. Others will have done the same. I still love watching the best, but I do so with a degree of suspicion now. In that regard, clean athletes are already suffering.

British sprinters Jason Gardener, who is now President of UK Athletics, and Ian Mackie were guys who helped give my bleak introduction to sporting reality some perspective, though. Johnson had not chased them away. Neither had subsequent revelations that most of those involved in that final – now referred to as the dirtiest in history – had been taking banned substances or were implicated in drug-taking scandals.

Athletics remained their passion and the thought of one day competing in an Olympic final and making it on to the podium was what drove them on. I’ve spoken with them both several times on the topic of cheats and doping, as one big name after another forced it to the fore and they claimed they often knew they were lining up against people who had taken banned substances, often knew they had crossed the line fourth behind three men who had cheated. They just couldn’t prove it. If losing a hero to that junk stings, that’s nothing compared to being denied a dream. Not when hours, days, years, of sacrifice and training in all weathers have been committed to making yourself the best clean athlete you can be. They suffered.

There may be innocent victims if Russia is excluded from the Rio games, but drugs have claimed many innocent victims already and attitudes as well as practices need to change.

Currently the IOC is looking at the legal options before making it’s final decision. But if Russia is ostracised when the Games kick-off on 5 August, the message will be loud and clear.

In the past nations have paid the price for unacceptable behaviour, with the IOC content to wade into political matters in 1948, when both Germany and Japan were left off the guest-list. South Afica paid the price during the apartheid era, while, more recently Afghanistan was rendered unwelcome in 2000. But banning one of the major medal winners from the global sporting showpiece would be a strong message that a line has been drawn on those waging war on the sport itself and make it clear that tackling drugs cheats is now a serious business.

“The scale, co-ordination and leadership of a doping system like this is arguably the most heinous crime possible against the Olympic movement,” commented Pengilly on the state-sponsored doping system in Russia, before expressing his sympathies for any clean athletes who will miss out as a consequence.

At least the Russian victims will know they played a part in bringing cheats to heel. It will be scant consolation, but more than would be available to clean athletes cheated out of a medal or a place in finals if the dopers are granted admission.

It was back in 1881 when Pierre de Coubertin attended an opening ceremony for a school sports and heard a priest speak about Citius. Altius. Fortius. It was then that the Olympic motto was adopted. A worthy, punchy catchline at the time, but it is no longer sufficient.

Heading to Rio and beyond, let’s make it Faster. Higher. Stronger. Cleaner. No more young enthusiasts should have their dreams shattered. No more wide-eyed fans need to have their heroes or their illusions tarnished. The IOC must be bold.