Contributor Perspectives

Russia: Playing to Win, No Matter the Cost

Thomas M. Hunt
Board of Contributors
6 MINS READApr 10, 2017 | 09:00 GMT
The geopolitics of Russian doping
The West has been a convenient boogeyman for Russia, a country that has not been shy about testing the boundaries of international rules — whether in sports or geopolitics.
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Middle-distance runner Yuliya Stepanova was once one of Russia's most promising athletes. In 2009, she by chance met a charismatic anti-doping official named Vitaly. It was a meeting that changed her life, and just two months later, the two were married. But the couple, along with their two children, now lives in hiding.

The Stepanovas' offense was to provide evidence of a wide-ranging drug program in Russia — one that was eventually shown to reach beyond even the highest levels of their country's sporting organizations and into the halls of the Russian government itself. The scandal set off a firestorm in the world of international sports that gives us insight into how rules are made and enforced, and why they're broken.

State-Sponsored Doping in Russia

The story of the ensuing investigation into Russian doping is long and complicated. In December 2014, the German media consortium ARD publicized recordings Yuliya had made on her cellphone and given to ARD. In them, Russian athletes, coaches and medical personnel could be heard discussing the use of performance-enhancing drugs. The report caused enough uproar to prompt the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to dispatch an independent commission to investigate the matter.

A series of increasingly alarming facts came to light over the next year and a half. In time, the Russian track and field team was provisionally (and later conclusively) suspended by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). And then, with the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro only weeks away, WADA released the first part of a damning 89-page report. Dubbed the "McLaren Report" (in recognition of its author, Canadian law professor Richard McLaren), the document detailed evidence that Russian authorities —including agents from the country's infamous Federal Security Service (FSB) — had systematically worked to cover up positive drug tests by Russian athletes since 2011. As a result, 167 Russian athletes, including the entire track and field team, were barred from competition in Rio; the country was banned altogether from the 2016 Paralympic Games.

Russians were incensed by the ban. President Vladimir Putin spoke of "blatant discrimination" and alluded to a secret Western plot by "short-sighted politicians" against Russian athletes. The double standards and assumption of collective responsibility, he said, were incompatible with the principles of sports. If the scandal wasn't political before, Putin's comments certainly made it so. The West has been a convenient boogeyman for the longtime leader of Russia, a country that has not been shy about testing the boundaries of international rules — whether in sports or geopolitics.

Who Enforces the Rules

The Russian doping scandal is a case that holds interest for fans of sports and geopolitics alike. For one, the way in which the issue of doping is regulated gives insight into how international activities are governed more generally. For many years, the various organizations that make up the governance structure for international sports attempted to keep the regulation of doping "in-house" — in other words, free from governmental interference. When Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson famously tested positive for steroids after the 100-meter finals at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, this system was castigated as wholly inadequate. Over the following decade, countries' political authorities exerted tremendous pressure on international sports officials to do something different. Due in large part to that pressure (as well as the promise of significant funding from national governments), WADA came into being in November 1999.

Anti-doping policies are thus designed and then implemented through a complex network of private, nongovernmental, governmental and intergovernmental actors.

Today it remains the central authority through which anti-doping activities operate. At the same time, an international nongovernmental organization called the Court of Arbitration for Sport is tasked with adjudicating any disputes that might arise on the subject. Government and intergovernmental actors continue to be important parts of the system, though. In fact, an agreement fashioned under the aegis of UNESCO called the International Convention against Doping in Sport provides the legal framework through which such issues are handled. Then there are law enforcement agencies such as Interpol that cooperate regularly on anti-doping initiatives.

Anti-doping policies are thus designed and then implemented through a complex network of private, nongovernmental, governmental and intergovernmental actors. Though this arrangement may seem byzantine, the world of sports is not all that unique. In fact, although they operate by means of very different sets of organizations, everything from human rights to health to international trade works in much the same way.

Russia's Relationship With the West

Russia's doping scandal also serves as a prism through which to contemplate Moscow's relationship with the Western world. In considering this idea, it struck me last week that the episode had something in common with Moscow's recent fielding of a banned ground-based cruise missile. Though any connection between nuclear affairs and the world of sports might at first glance seem dubious, in both cases Russia has demonstrated a willingness to push the boundaries of an international agreement — the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty on one hand and the International Convention against Doping in Sport on the other. This pattern is visible in the way Moscow reacted to its treatment by international sports authorities as well. Shortly after the conclusion of the Rio Games, WADA and the Court of Arbitration for Sport announced that they had been the victims of a cyberattack by Fancy Bear, a hacking group said to have close ties to Russian military intelligence. The medical records of Western athletes, including the therapeutic use exemptions for otherwise banned substances, were in short order posted online. Just this past Monday, the IAAF reported a similar incident.

Fancy Bear is the same party alleged to be responsible for the hacking last year of U.S. Democratic Party officials and Hillary Clinton's campaign. Astute observers of the geopolitics of sports would do well to see the Russian doping scandal, then, as a small piece of a much larger movement by Moscow to challenge the rules-based international norms that the Western world has worked for so long to entrench. This doesn't entirely explain, however, why Russia cares so deeply about winning in sports. Why, in short, has the country gone to such lengths as we have seen in the doping scandal? To fully understand the answer, one must look to the nature of Russia's domestic politics. Putin's government has long cultivated nationalism at home as a mechanism for maintaining support among the nation's citizenry for its continuing place in power. Given the intensity of feelings for one's country that flow during the Olympic Games, it doesn't take much to appreciate how Moscow might have a hard time resisting the pull of drug-fueled success in international sports.

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