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Quick resolution of Russian doping case raises concern that IOC will be too lenient with Russians at closing, in the future

Researches enter into the Doping Control Center at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Feb. 19, 2018.
Researches enter into the Doping Control Center at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Feb. 19, 2018.
Ahn Young-joon, AP

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — In the closing days of the Winter Olympic Games, a Russian curler forfeited his bronze medal after a failed drug test, and a debate, of course, ensued.

Does the fact that Aleksandr Krushelnitsky, who earned a bronze medal in mixed double curling, tested positive for the banned substance meldonium indicate a further failure of Olympic doping efforts or is it a sign of success?

Mark Adams, the spokesman for the International Olympic Committee, repeatedly said in press briefings that he felt the fact that Krushelnitsky was caught was, in fact, evidence that the testing system worked.

Others, however, suggested this was the problem with allowing any Russian athletes to compete after two different investigations confirmed a state-supported wide-spread effort to undermine and cheat the anti-doping efforts of the 2014 Olympics.

“I think you could see it as evidence that the anti-doping measures are working,” said IOC spokesman Mark Adams, during a daily press briefing immediately after the reported violation occurred.

The case has caused far more concern than normal because it is a Russian athlete. The Dec. 5 decision from the IOC’s executive board laid the foundation for the skepticism that now wafts over the Krushelnitsky controversy.

While the IOC executive committee seemed to take a hardline with the Russians for the state-sponsored cheating, it also allowed two things that have undermined their assertion that they take doping seriously.

First, they allowed Russian athletes to compete in the 2018 Games if they submitted to pre-Games testing and special rules, that they felt were an effort to “protect the rights of the individual Russian clean athletes,” the IOC decision said.

That meant 169 Russian athletes would compete in the 2018 Olympics, but they would do so under the IOC flag as “Olympic Athletes from Russia.”

How to watch the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang

Secondly, the IOC decision stated that they “may partially or fully lift the suspension” and allow the Russian participants to march in Closing Ceremonies under the Russian Flag.

That allowed 169 Russian athletes to participate in the 2018 Olympics. Adams has made clear that is a decision the executive committee will make in Saturday’s or Sunday’s meetings, where they will review a number of factors, including the way the athletes have conducted themselves throughout the Games.

The complaints fielded by IOC representatives, including athlete representatives, is not without evidence that the IOC may be leaning toward allowing the Russian athletes to exit the game under their own flag. First, the speed of the resolution, when the Russians have vigorously fought every other case, raised immediate suspicion that a compromise was already in the worlds. Then, on Wednesday, IOC president Thomas Bach’s meeting with Igor Levitin, who is the vice president of the Russian Olympic Committee.

Adams said it was a “four-minute courtesy” conversation, but as most Russian officials are also banned from participating in the Games, and any associated ceremonies, it just added legitimacy to the rumors.

While some see the failed doping test as evidence that the ban against Russia cannot be lifted, others see it as the only blemish on a flawless participation.

“Having a Russian athlete test positive is not a good thing,” said Angela Ruggiero, an American and the head of the IOC’s athlete’s commission, at the IOC’s daily press briefing Thursday. “But we’re waiting to get more feedback, and what were the circumstances. …In this particular situation where they were under a microscope, it raises more concerns.”

Both she and Adams declined to speculate, or even offer details about what positive and negative feedback they’d received, as they both believe the final decision will be accompanied by rationale and facts in a more complete form on Feb. 25.

The reality is that the system used in determining whether Russian athletes could participate in Pyeongchang was far more acceptable than what was viewed as a free pass in Rio. In the wake of those games, the IOC made the testing for and enforcement of doping violations independent.

“There are estimates that the sports movement in general spends an estimated $300 million dollars on anti-doping, and that seems pretty substantial to me,” Adams said Thursday. “Can we do more? Absolutely. Are we doing more? Absolutely. … A lot of money is being spent by the IOC for anti-doping efforts, and we’re going to spend a lot more.”

Olympic schedule and results

There will still be a reckoning because of cases still pending or being appealed by the Russians.

Consider the contrast between Vancouver and Sochi.

In the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, officials touted a state-of-the-art system that would make getting away with using banned substances next to impossible. In those games, Russia earned just 15 medals, and only three of those were gold.

In Sochi, where the McLaren report revealed the Russian government had sanctioned a system that allowed Russian athletes to take banned substances throughout the Games, the host country won the most medals at the Games with 11 gold and 29 total medals.

While some of those results were vacated by the IOC, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, overturned five of the six cases in which medals were stripped and lifetime bans were imposed. Most of those cases are still being considered, and it was the reason the IOC executive board gave in December of why Russian athletes could only participate if they agreed to more comprehensive and frequent doping tests, as well as having no pending case before CAS or the IOC.

Whether or not the speed at which the Krushelnitsky case was resolved indicates anything or not, that will have to be determined by the decision and associated evidence.

“This has just been hard for everyone,” Ruggiero said. “We represent the rights of clean athletes, that includes clean Russian athletes. Coming in the Russian athletes were high-risk athletes, so they had an incredibly high hurdle to clear. …Keep in mind, three-quarters of the athletes competing in these games were not in Sochi.”