WHEN THOMAS BACH was elected president of the International Olympic Committee back in 2014, his to-do list overflowed and he knew he had some tough decisions ahead.
What he is unlikely to have imagined is that, on the eve of his first summer Games, his organisation would be asked to make a call which could have the most profound impact on the entire Olympic ecosystem.
Yet while lawyers scurried around preparing legal opinion on the IOC’s options, opinion outside Russia was that while this was a difficult decision because of its impact on ‘clean’ Russian athletes, the greater good of the Olympic Games and sport in general would be best served by exclusion.
Nobody who loves sport can be unmoved by the hurt caused to a clean athlete who has trained to take part in the Games, only to find they are robbed of their moment in the sun because somebody else has decided to give the finger to the rules.
But the pain is at least as sharp and long-lasting for those clean competitors who are robbed of a medal by a drugs cheat.
Justice can sometimes be a blunt instrument and it was the potential for collateral damage to clean athletes which made this a tough decision, rather than the principles at stake. Legal issues aside, deciding on a blanket ban should have been the easy bit, a no-brainer.
Ultimately, it comes down to a single question: do you want the Olympic Games to retain its status as the world’s premier sports event, as a celebration of some of the best of humanity, an event which captivates the world and generates revenues which help fund sports development around the world? Tick the box marked ‘YES’ and it is clear what had to be done.
The appeal of the Olympic Games, and therefore its commercial success, lies in its engagement with a massive global audience which believes it is watching competition which will be won by the best competitor. If it can’t believe in that, then the engagement will ultimately be lost. After all, if you want to watch something where the outcome is a certainty, you may as well go to the theatre. Of course you can argue that the audience isn’t naive and that there’s been so much evidence of doping over the years that the public buys tickets or turns on the television knowing what the score is.
There may be some truth in this, but, in reality, it is all to do with degrees of confidence in the system. Right now the public appears willing to believe – rightly or wrongly – in the system of identifying and banning drugs cheats, and accepts that what it is watching represents as fair a contest as that system will produce. That may represent the triumph of hope over expectation, but the fact that there’s still an audience tends to bare it out.
But what happens when public faith in that already questionable system begins to falter, when hopes for clean sport are replaced by an expectation that any given event will be tainted by cheating? By degrees the audience will be disappointed, disengaged and, ultimately, disinterested. And when you get to disinterest, you’ve hit rock bottom.
To keep that faith, Bach and his colleagues only really had one decision to make. Anything other than a blanket ban had to be a reaction to cold legal realities standing in the way of broader justice for clean athletes and a determination to maintain the integrity and commercial value of the Olympic brand.
More than any other major sports property, the Olympic Games relies on the power of its brand for its commercial success. When partners sign massive contracts, they are not buying into pitch side boards or shirt-front logos. They are buying kinship with a brand which, research shows, is almost universally recognised, trusted and respected. If that trust and respect go out of the window, then so does much of the Games’ ability to make money. If the public falls out of love with the Games, media companies won’t stump up millions of dollars for the rights and brands will find other ways of spending their money – there are plenty of alternatives.
Whatever happens during the Rio Games, we have to hope that this turns out to be a watershed moment in the fight against doping. At the moment, the system is seen as flawed and open to accusations of political influence and victimisation of a single country and its athletes.
That’s an issue the IOC and the wider world of sport has to deal with by collaboratively finding new, clearly independent structures to identify and effectively prosecute cheats, whether they act alone or come off a state-run production line. And that is probably the most difficult – as well as the most important – job in sport right now.