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The Big Debate | Has the credibility of the Olympic Games been impacted by the handling of the Russian doping scandal?

In May, International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach was unequivocal in his stance on doping. “Protecting the clean athletes is a top priority of the IOC,” he said. “Protecting the clean athletes means on the other hand zero tolerance against doping cheats and their entourage.” Two months later Bach, and the IOC, were faced with a headache that he and the Olympic Movement could certainly have done without.

The full extent of the state-sponsored doping programme in Russia, which hosted the most recent edition of the winter Olympic Games, was finally exposed by a damning report by Richard McLaren for the World Anti-Doping Agency. Following the release of the report, the pressure being exerted on the IOC from all quarters became deafening. Wada and numerous National Olympic Committees supported a blanket ban on Russian athletes at the Rio 2016 summer Games.

However, with less than two weeks to go before the start of the Olympics, chaos ensued when the IOC elected to leave it up to individual International Federations to decide which athletes should be allowed to compete. Wada hit out at the move, only to then come under fire from the IOC for the timing of the release of the report.

Contrastingly, the International Paralympic Committee decided to impose a blanket ban, with president Sir Philip Craven claiming that Russia had prioritised “medals over morals.” However, the IPC’s stance was also challenged, firstly by Russia, which claimed that the decision was “politically motivated,” and then by Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, the influential president of the Association of National Olympic Committees.

Public opinion would appear to be unconvinced at best. At the Olympic Games opening ceremony in Rio there were boos as the Russian athletes entered the arena. So how has the handling of the Russian doping scandal impacted the credibility of the Olympic Games as a whole? We asked four experts and although they approached the topic from different perspectives, the over-riding answer to the question was unanimous.



Over the course of the 16 days of the Olympic Games sports fans were once again touched by moments of drama, passion and glory that will last with them – us – forever.

It may have been a household name such as Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps, or someone who caught our imagination, such as Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini, representing the Refugee Olympic Athletes Team. It may have been the shock of the fabulous Japanese team overcoming New Zealand in the rugby sevens or cyclist Kristin Armstrong winning time-trial gold for the third time on the eve of her 43rd birthday. We fist-pumped, we shouted out and jumped for joy as we were reminded why we love sport so much.

In that respect, the Olympic Games was not impacted by the Russian doping scandal. But in every other respect, it was.

The decision by the IOC to defer to individual international sporting federations to determine whether Russian athletes could participate was an abrogation of its responsibility towards its marquee event, to every other athlete who competed and to the much-vaunted Olympic ideals.

This non-decision demonstrated that the IOC is past its use-by date and is unfit to lead. Some European governments and national anti-doping organisations agree.

When an international sporting organisation like the IOC is backed into a corner, it pulls out its ‘autonomy’ card. It uses the ‘a’ word as the rationale for an almost divine right to do what it wants without regard either to the real values of sport, such as integrity and fair play, or to the two forgotten stakeholders, the athlete and the paying sports fan.

The IOC was established at the beginning of the 20th century at a time when the world was vastly different. Autonomy is not only an outdated concept, it’s an undeserved privilege.

The credibility of the Olympic Games will be in question unless, and until, the ‘Olympic Movement’, the people who run it and the people who run them, are gone.



“This battle is completely lost. However, there is time to win another.” So said General Desaix to Bonaparte at Marengo.

The IOC lost the anti-doping battle of Rio. This year’s Games will be remembered for the participation of athletes served by a Russian system that corrupted clean sport and the chorus of boos they roused from the stands. What was the IOC thinking when it chose to associate itself with state-sponsored doping by failing to reject it categorically? The International Paralympic Committee, faced with the same facts, did not make that mistake. But we must move on. Drawing on the deep reservoir of global passion for sport, the IOC can still help us win the war for clean sport. It can also redeem itself.

To do this, the IOC should confront its current position objectively and with a long-term view. Accept that its reaction to the McLaren Report has damaged sport and commit to becoming part of the solution and not, through defiance, continue to exacerbate the problem.

It should lead the enormous task of convincing Russia, Russian athletes and Russian sports leaders of the cultural change needed there. Anti-doping is not ‘political’ – it is at the heart of true sport. Let the IOC help us hear Russian voices acknowledge that.

To restore confidence in international sport decision-making (including its own), the IOC should insist on authentic good governance in sports organisations. It must demand independent (not stakeholder) governing boards, term limits for board members, public reporting as required of publicly-listed companies and public oversight of operations and spending.

The IOC should support whistle-blowers and strengthen Wada’s independence, as well as support independent doping control for international federations under Wada’s oversight. It must also get Olympic sponsors and broadcasters into the anti-doping game. It is less than two years until the next Olympics. Let’s hope the IOC uses that time wisely to ensure that the reception of Russian athletes in PyeongChang is very different to the one in Rio.



The Olympic Movement will never be the same because of how it handled Russia and the Russian sports establishment in 2016.

Doping during the Olympics is old news and certainly not something Russians invented. On the contrary, Russia has been an opponent of doping in sport since the beginning. It was in Moscow where the IOC adopted the first ever anti-doping resolution in 1962 as a reaction to a rash of doping cases and casualties – none of which were related to Russian sports.

Over the last 50 years we have created an antidoping system that is deeply flawed – as MATCH TV established in our investigative documentary, The Doping Trap – but fundamentally just. The core principle that the anti-doping system is built upon is that every athlete must take individual responsibility. Sometimes they make mistakes and cheat. That said, the vast majority of athletes don’t dope.

It is this fundamental principle of individual responsibility – connected with other human rights, like presumption of innocence – that was thrown overboard on the road to Rio.

If we are now reassessing past Olympic wins, shouldn’t we test all the athletes, not just some? If Wada insists on using evidence that comes from two samples (A and B) showing different results, this needs to be re-examined.

As the discussion on these issues rages on between federations, heads of state, athletes and IOC officials, it starts to hurt not just Russia but the overall Olympic Movement. The further we get in mutual incriminations, the lower we take the credibility of the Olympics and medallists. Trust in the fairness of the Games is ebbing away.

Undermining the credibility of the Olympics by the members of the movement – we are truly collectively shooting ourselves in the foot. We should dispassionately dissect the situation, punish the guilty and focus on restoring the good name of the Olympic Movement. As to what will come from the ‘Russian doping scandal’, one hopes there will be a long overdue overhaul of the international anti-doping system.



There can be no doubt that the credibility of the Olympic Games has been compromised by doping and that the commercial prospects of this unique sports property could be hit if the situation is not tackled effectively and quickly.
More than any other property, the Olympic Games trades off the strength of its brand and its values, which include fair play, sportsmanship and unity. That is what the public and the Games TOP partners buy into. If those values are undermined in any way, the Olympic spell is broken and the business model starts to unravel.

Remember this is not the Premier League, where brands can be confident in the knowledge that it will be visible to hundreds of millions worldwide. TOP partners have to work harder to deliver their messages and that means nailing their colours to the Olympic brand. If that’s tarnished, it’s money down the drain.

In the past, the Olympic brand has proved resilient to scandal, but that may be because the perpetrators were the men in suits who ran the Games and not the athletes themselves. Once the public begins to doubt the outcome of sporting events; that could change. To be clear, this is not just a Russian problem and it is not just a track and field problem. There are issues in many countries and across a range of sports which need to be addressed by strong and clear-sighted leaders.

The point is that in this digital age sponsors and media companies have plenty of other places to spend their money, places which may give them a better return. The phenomenal growth of e-sports is just one example. They offer sponsors a chance to be part of a new vibrant, young community of connected consumers and sponsors have opportunities to play an active part in their digital lives. They know exactly who they are, where they are and what they like, and that is marketing gold dust. In contrast, a tarnished Olympic Games looks less compelling and less relevant in our fast changing world.



To join the debate go to our LinkedIn discussion, and keep an eye out for next month's debate

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