Olympic Athletes from Russia enter the Stadium
Olympic Athletes from Russia enter the Stadium under the Olympic flag.

Wait, the Russians are here?

The casual fan of the Olympics likely heard that the Russian team was banned from the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. In actuality, the International Olympic Committee, based on reports of state-sponsored and systematic doping, decided to suspend the Russian National Olympic Committee, thus removing their eligibility to select and send their athletes to the Olympics.

Russians celebrate first OAR medal at 1500 mens short track finals
Russians celebrate first OAR medal at 1500 men’s short track finals.

However, the IOC still created a process to review individual athletes from Russia, and then make a decision to invite them if they passed “strict conditions.” As a result, while 47 coaches and athletes were banned from attending, there are actually 168 Russian athletes at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. By contrast, Russia had 179 at the 2010 Vancouver Games and 225 in Russia a the Sochi Olympics.

 

Russia Fans at Snowboading Slop style
Russia Fans at snowboarding Slope style

 

In other words, the Russian team, under the name IOC designation, “Olympic Athletes of Russia” (OAR), is in force in South Korea.

And so are their fans.

Fans donning the white, blue and red of Russia are omnipresent, visible and audible. Smiling and proud, they are happy and proud to cheer on their Russian, waving Russian flags.

Russia Fans at Pairs Figure Skating
Russian Fans at Pairs Figure Skating

The Russian athletes are also happy for the fan support, but have had to be careful, as they can’t be seen publicly with symbols that associate them to Russia. As the AP reported, former NHL #1 draft pick for the Atlanta Thrashers and star for the New Jersey Devils, Ilya Kovalchuk, has had to warn fans to put away their Russian flags if they want pictures with the star left wing for Team OAR.

Olympics: Ice Hockey-Men Team Group B - RUS-USA
Ilya Kovalchuk (71) celebrates with defenseman Vyacheslav Voinov (26) and forward Pavel Datsyuk (13) after scoring a goal. USATSI

“We won’t chase (fans) away” if they’re carrying Russian flags, Kovalchuk said Tuesday. “If there’s an IOC rule then we’ll talk to them, explain it and take a photograph without the flag.”

There is no Russia House, a venue at Olympiads where athletes, media, family and friends can gather. But according to Reuters, Russia did create a place called “Sports House” in Gangneung, near the ice hockey venues, where supporters can “celebrate the athletic success.”

So yes, the Russians are here, and their fans are happy they are.

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Usain Bolt and the Holy Redeemer

    Usain Bolt and the Holy Redeemer

The bigger picture at the Rio Olympics:

Cambridge Bolt and Brommel

hans-gunnar-liljenvall
Hans-Gunnar Liljenvall in Mexico City

One thousand Russians are known to have benefited from doping and the cover-up of doping in the state-sponsored program to provide illicit advantage to Russian athletes, particularly during the 2012 London Olympics, the 2013 track and field world championships in Beijing, and the 2014 Winter Olympics.

The first major report on Russia from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in July, 2016 included a recommendation to the IOC to ban the entire Russian team from the 2016 Rio Olympics. As a result, over a hundred Russians were eventually forbidden from competing in Brazil.

WADA released a follow-up report on December 9, 2016 – a far more comprehensive review of the state-sponsored doping program in Russia, and it was damning. And there will likely be another round of medal shuffling – at least 15 Russian medalists at the Sochi Winter Games had urine samples that had been tampered with.

It’s a grim time for international sports – the insidious plague of doping and the lengths individuals and countries will go. It makes me pine for those halcyon days of the 1960s and 1970s (yes, written with ironical intent), when our views on doping were less sophisticated.

The first person ever disqualified for “doping”, as it were, was when Swede Hans-Gunnar Liljenvall was discovered to have ingested an illegal substance prior to competing in the modern pentathlon at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics – beer.

It’s said that he had a couple of beers and that traces of alcohol were found in urine. Unlucky for Liljenvall, 1968 was the first year that the IOC included urine testing, as well as alcohol on the list of banned substances. Unfortunately, Liljenwall took his two other teammates down with him, as they lost their bronze medals as well.

Why beer? After all, alcohol is a depressant, not a simulant. This article supposes, probably correctly, that in certain hand-eye coordination events, like pistol shooting in the pentathlon, you need to calm yourself, as opposed to gear yourself up. That’s the same reasoning why anti-psychotics are sometimes illegally injected into horses in equestrian events – to calm down the excitable horses.

Today, getting disqualified for beer sounds silly. Getting banned for caffeine too, but I suppose only to the non-athlete. My mind wonders how many cups of coffee or cans of red bull would it take to get you to world record levels…but I suppose that is not what WADA is looking for.

Caffeine is a stimulant, and until 2004, it was a banned substance. In fact, the second person ever banned for “doping” was a Mongolian judoka named Bakhaavaa Buidaa, who lost his silver medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics after over 12 micrograms of caffeine per milliliter was found in his urine. At least that’s how a lot of sources explain this incident.

But there are also references to Buidaa taking Dianabol, an anabolic steroid that provides a low-cost way of building muscle quickly. Since combining caffeine and Dianabol is a popular routine for athletes who need muscle mass to compete, it’s possible that both were in the judoka’s system.

Caffeine was taken off the banned substance list, but it is still on the IOC monitoring list.

Rio Medals Table sans Russia

A little less than two weeks prior to the start of the 2016 Rio Olympics, the IOC made a fateful decision. A report from the World Anti-Doping Agency recommended that all Russian athletes be banned from international competition, including the Olympic Summer Games. The IOC, which had the final say, chose to defer judgment on eligibility for Olympic participation to the various international sports federations. While the international track and field organization, IAAF, had decided much earlier to ban the entire Russian track and field team, many other federations chose to allow the Russians to compete. In the end, 278 Russians were cleared, while 111 were ruled ineligible.

At the end of the Olympic Summer Games on August 21, Russia had tallied the fourth highest number of gold medals (19) and total medals (56), behind the USA, China and Great Britain. Russia finished ahead of Germany, France and Japan.

But what would have happened if all Russian athletes were banned from the Rio Games as WADA had recommended?

  1. Would the medal tables have changed significantly?
  2. Would any individual or team have won for their country a medal in a specific category for the first time?
  3. Would any nation have won its first medal of any kind, ever?

Would the medal tables have changed significantly? The answer to the first question is no. if the Russians had to give back all of their 56 medals, around 30 nations would be getting additional medals. America could have added two medals but they were already 50 medals ahead of China. China was actually impacted the most by Russia’s presence, as they could have had as many as another 7 bronze medals without the Russians in the mix. But that would still have left them far behind the US in the overall medal race.

Italy may have felt the pain considerably. Like the Chinese, they lost out potentially on as many as 7 bronze medals in a wide variety of sporting areas. Azerbaijan potentially lost out on 5 bronze medals, if not for the Russians.

Of course, these are guestimates I’ve made based on what individuals or teams came in fourth. Complicating matters, in sports like judo or wrestling or boxing you have at least two people each tied for third and fourth. In the case of the men’s lightweight boxing tournament, there were four people who finished just below one of the bronze medalists, a Russian. Who knows who would have actually gotten the bronze without Vitaly Dunaytsev in Rio?

Dipa Karmaker
India’s first Olympic gymnast, Dipa Karmaker
Would any nation have won its first medal in a specific category? The answer to the second question is yes. Dipa Karmaker is a female gymnast from India, and her score of 15.966 in the individual vault competition left her 0.15 points behind Giulia Steingruber of Switzerland. If silver medalist, Maria Paseka of Russia, had her medal revoked, Steingruber, Switzerland’s first gymnast to win a medal of any kind, would be awarded a silver medal. Her bronze medal would go to Karmaker, who is the first ever Indian to compete as a gymnast in the Olympics, and could possibly have been the first to win a gymnastics medal if the Russians were not allowed to compete.

Would any nation have won its first medal of any kind, ever? The answer to the third question is yes: two countries could have finally broken the high-performance glass ceiling with a bronze medal.

If not for Russia, Cameroon could have taken home a bronze in women’s freestyle wrestling (75kg). Annabelle Ali, Cameroon’s flag bearer in the 2012 Games, tied with Vasilisa Marzaliuk of Belarus one notch below the Russian Ekaterina Bukina.

Additionally, Mauritius could have experienced its first medal. Kennedy St Pierre was one of four heavyweight boxers to place fifth at Rio. If Evgeny Tishchenko were not in Rio, a favored boxer would have been out of the competition. Who knows who would have beaten whom? Out of 8 quarterfinalists, four get medals, so St Pierre’s chances would have increased significantly if the Russian was not in the ring. Yes, you can say that for the other competitors, but for Mauritius, it would have been party time if St Pierre brought home the bronze.

Kennedy St-Pierre
Mauritius’ Kennedy St-Pierre beat Algeria’s Chouaib Bouloudinats
Daraya Pishchalnikova
Darya Pishchalnikova

On June 17, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) barred the entire Russian track and field team from competing in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio this August due to revelations of Russia’s state-sponsored doping of its athletes. As the head of the IAAF, Sebastian Coe, stated during this historic announcement, “Politics was not playing a part in that room today. It was unambiguous.”

The scale of this ban due to doping is unprecedented in Olympic history, and will have a significant impact on the Rio medal tally as Russia won 18 medals in track and field, including 8 gold medals, at the 2012 London Games. This is a tragedy for Russians, who likely were fully expectant of their citizens bringing home medals and glory from Brazil. But it is also a victory for athletes who live clean sporting lives, and a bit of redemption for athletes whose final results may have been affected by a tainted Russian athlete.

But this a complex tale of good and bad, with victims, heroes and dreamers. Here are a few of the players in this tragedy:

The Whistle-Blowing Victim, Darya Pishchalnikova: Way back in December of 2012, a female discus thrower from Astrakhan Russia wrote a very sensitive email in English, and sent it to the World Anti-Doping Agency. Darya Pishchalnikova took a chance by opening up to the global doping regulatory authority, expecting her whistle lowing to be handled with the utmost confidentiality. According to this New York Times article, Pishchalnikova’s email was sent to the top three WADA officials at the time, with a note explaining that the discus thrower’s accusations were “relatively precise”, filled with facts and names. What did WADA do with Pischalnikova’s email? They forwarded it to the Russian sports authorities

What is interesting is that she had actually tested positive for an anabolic steroid prior to the 2012 London Games in May, 2012. She blew the whistle 7 months later, explaining how she had taken banned substances as a part of a systematic doping program in Russia. But perhaps predictably, after the Russian authorities were forwarded Pischalnikova’s email from WADA, the Russian Athletics Federation banned her from competing any further for Russia.

Rusanova of Russia competes during the woman's 800 metres semi-final heat 1 at the IAAF World Championships in Daegu
Yuliya Rusanova of Russia; REUTERS/Michael Dalder

The Reluctant Hero, Yuliya Stepanova: Like Pishchalnikova, Yuliya Stepanova (now Rusanova) was a standout athlete who was banned by the IAAF due to abnormalities with her bloodwork. Her husband, Vitaly Stepanov, was actually a member of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA), who was growing disenchanted with RUSADA’s lack of integrity. At one point, the 800-meter specialist took steps to divorce herself from her crusading husband. But after Yuliya was banned by the IAAF for two years, the couple committed to work together, and began to think about ways to share their insight into systematic doping of Russian athletes. Eventually, they agreed to go on camera with German news broadcaster, ARD, for a documentary that blew the lid off Russia’s state-sponsored doping system. Fearing for their safety, the couple, now married, are living in the United States.

Sochi Winter Olympic Games - Pre-Games activity - Wednesday
Sir Craig Reedie

The Reluctant Sheriff, WADA: We know that the World Anti-Doping Agency was aware of allegations into Russian state-sponsored doping, as early as December, 2012 based on Pischalnikova’s case. We also know according to this 60 Minutes account that Yuliya’s husband, Vitaly sent 200 emails and 50 letters to WADA, detailing what he knew as an insider at RUSADA. As 60 Minutes stated, “his crusade eventually cost him his job.”

WADA’s president is Craig Reedie. In this New York Times article, he acknowledges that Vitaly contacted him, but also implied he did not act on it. In fact, he even confirmed “that he had sent a reassuring email to the Russian sports ministry in April — four months after the ARD documentary was broadcast — in which he praised the sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, for his efforts in the fight against doping and said there was ‘no intention in WADA to do anything to affect’ their relationship.”

Wow.

The Hopeful, Yelena Isinbayeva: Pole vaulting has been an Olympic event for women for only four Olympiads, debuting at the 2000 Sydney Games. In that period, Russian Yelena Isinbayeva has won gold in 2004 and 2008 before taking bronze in 2012. She has never tested positive for drugs. And despite the ban, she still hopes to participate in her fifth and

Ma Junren and his Army
Chinese Track coach Ma Junren and his “Army”

Old letters from our youth can trigger warm memories or nascent insecurities. Some should be published for their form and insightfulness. Others should be lost to eternity.

The Chinese government may have wished for the latter for one particular letter that has unveiled yet-another possible example of state-sponsored doping. Russia’s athletics team is banned from competing in the 2016 Rio Olympics, and Kenya’s team is under threat of ban. Now China is facing scrutiny over allegations that Ma Junren, the coach of China’s female middle- and long-distance runners, forced performance-enhancing drugs on his team of runners.

While the news broke in early February of this year, the source of the news was a letter written in 1995, signed by nine members of Ma Junren’s team. The women on this team, who also faced intolerable physical and verbal abuse from their coach, delivered the letter to an investigative reporter they respected, Zhao Yu. Nineteen years later, this letter was finally published in a book by Zhao Yu, unnoticed by the public, until a Chinese sports website called Sports.qq.com shared the letter this month. Here is part of that letter:

What we have told you about how Coach Ma verbally and physically abused us for years is true. It is also true that he tricked and forced us into using large quantities of banned drugs for years. We have a heavy heart and very complicated feelings in exposing him.

The person who is said to have written this letter is Wang Junxia, who was coached by Ma until 1995. Under Ma, Wang set records and won titles in marathons, 10ks, 3ks and 1500 meter races. In 1995, Wang and her teammates left their coach. In 1996, at the Atlanta Summer Games, Wang won gold in the inaugural women’s 5,000 meter race, as well as silver in the 10,000 meter competition.

Wang Junxia at the Atlanta Summer Games
Wang Junxia at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta

And now, due to this recently publicized revelations, what Wang wrote in that letter 21 years ago may ring true: “We are concerned that our motherland’s reputation will be harmed, and we are also concerned about ‘how much gold’ there will be in our gold medals that were earned through blood and sweat.”

Go to this New York Times article for the full text of the letter.

chicago blackhawks 2015 stanley cup champions

THREE – Chicago Black Hawks and Nine Olympians Take the Stanley Cup: The Chicago Blackhawks beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 4 games to 2 for their sixth NHL championship. On that Chicago team were Kimmo Timonen whose long and distinguished career included bronze and silver medals for Team Finland in 1998, 2006, 2010, 2014; Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith who won gold for Team Canada in 2010 and 2014 in Sochi, along with fellow Canadians Patrick Sharp and Brent Seabrook who won gold medal in 2014; Patrick Kane who won silver on the USA team in 2010; Johnny Oduya, Marcus Kruger, Niklas Hjalmarsson who won silver on the Swedish team in Sochi in 2014; Brad Richards Canada: who competed for Team Canada in 2006; and Marian Hossa of Slovakia who competed in 2002, 2006 and 2010.

Platini and Blatter

TWO – FIFA Scandal and Ban: The FIFA Ethics Committee banned FIFA president Sepp Blatter and UEFA head and FIFA heir apparent Michel Platini from all football-related activities for eight years, sparking hopes of greater transparency and an end to corruption and bribes which impact FIFA decisions. For a brilliant explanation of the scandal by John Oliver, all the way back in June, 2014, watch this video.

 

Russia Track Banned.jpg

ONE – Russia Track and Field Team Banned: After it was revealed that Russian athletes were illegally doping thanks to a state-run program, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) decides in November to suspend the All-Russia Athletic Federation, essentially all Russian track and field athletes, from participating in international competitions, including the upcoming 2016 Rio Olympics. Here is the documentary that sparked the investigation.

See this link for 13 through 15, 10 through 12, 7 through 9, and 4 through 6.