Russia’s absence, through a ban or boycott, would be felt far more acutely at the Winter Games than at the Summer Games. Russia is one of the relatively few countries that cares deeply about and excels in the Winter Games. Without its participation in sports like figure skating, Nordic skiing and hockey, these could become the Asterisk Olympics of lesser or irrelevant competitors.
As Sergei Voronov, a top Russian skater, said, “As we are one of the leading powers, not just in sports but in all other spheres, I think without Russia it won’t be a full-scale event.”
Allowing Russian athletes who have not been accused of doping to compete seems to be a prevailing sentiment in figure skating, the centerpiece of the Winter Games. If Russian skaters pass the same drug screenings as skaters from other countries, said Alexander König, a prominent German pairs coach, “In my eyes they should be allowed to compete. You cannot say to all of them, ‘Out.’”
Regardless of what the I.O.C. decides on Tuesday, widespread doping by the Russians in Sochi — 25 Russian athletes have so far been retroactively disqualified from the 2014 Games — has further eroded the credibility and moral authority of the Olympics. This follows the bribery scandal that led to Salt Lake City hosting the 2002 Winter Games, a judging scandal there in figure skating and another judging controversy in Sochi, where organizers spent $51 billion, an amount that many considered obscene.
The Winter Games are in particularly fragile shape. Few cities want to host them. Many Western democracies can’t afford the excessive costs. Really, who needs a ski jump or a luge track to spruce up a Chamber of Commerce brochure?
Credit Justin Tallis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
It appears to have been a mistake by the I.O.C. to separate the Winter from the Summer Games in the early 1990s. With an Olympics held every two years, the novelty has worn off and the Games risk becoming just another event on the sporting calendar. The Summer Games, at least, feel like a major international competition, as some 200 countries participate. More and more, the Winter Games have the artificial feel of a television or movie set. Only about 80 countries show up.
Without Russia’s participation — justified or unjustified — the 2018 Games in South Korea would surely become even more diminished.
“It’s going to be not like a full Olympic Games,” said Evgeni Plushenko, the 2006 Olympic men’s figure skating champion from Russia who is now a coach.
The Kontinental Hockey League, based in Moscow, is threatening to withdraw all of its players from the Olympics if Russia is barred, and not just Russian players. That could also weaken the rosters of other powers like the United States and Canada. According to The Associated Press, the International Ice Hockey Federation has called for the “full participation of all clean Russian athletes” and has said that punishment that is too punitive would place “the health of ice hockey at risk.”
True, Russia remains in denial about widespread doping, blaming conspiracy instead of admitting complicity. But the I.O.C. and international sports federations also remain in denial about their own hypocrisy and indifference to widespread doping in many sports through the decades.
They have been widely criticized for not spending enough money and effort to combat doping. Lately, some of the most vociferous criticism has come from an insider, Dick Pound, a longtime I.O.C. delegate from Montreal and a former president of the World Anti-Doping Agency.
At a recent conference in the Netherlands, Pound issued a blistering critique of international sports federations. He accused their leaders of being more concerned about getting re-elected and preserving corporate sponsorships and television rights fees than they are about fair play.
Antidoping science has grown more robust, Pound said, according to the website “Inside the Games,” but he added that “the problem is that you’ve got a whole bunch of people out there who don’t want it to work.”
Even if Russia is barred from the 2018 Winter Games, there is considerable doubt that it would deter the widespread use of banned substances in Olympic sports by athletes from numerous countries. No previous doping scandals have.
Asked if a ban would be anything more than window dressing, Bruno Marcotte, a highly regarded skating pairs coach from Montreal, said, “Do you think the N.F.L., Major League Baseball, is cleaner than it was 20 years ago?”
He chuckled. Clearly, in his mind, the answer was no.