Russians banned not banned
Source: ABC News Australia

Who’s in? Who’s out? The very political decision making process for which Russian athletes are considered eligible for the Rio Olympics or not has changed yet again.

As most of the sporting world is aware, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) issued a report recommending that the entire team from Russia be banned from the upcoming Rio Olympics. The International Olympic Committee, which originally had the final thumbs-up, thumbs-down accountability on who gets to participate in the Olympics, decided to defer judgment on Russian eligibility to the international sports federations.

IOC and Russian flagsThis created chaos as, frankly, with less than two weeks to go, the various federations, some supremely under-resourced, have to make a well-researched decision on who to ban or not to ban. Many have criticized that decision. And as can be expected, decisions on Russians allowed to compete are inconsistent.

In this great summary by ABC News of Australia (as of July 27), the IAAF has banned all track and field athletes, as has the International Wrestling Federation. The World Rowing Federation has approved 6 for participation, but banned 19. The governing body for badminton (BWF), the International Judo Federation and the governing world body for volleyball, FIVB, have essentially cleared all of their eligible Russian players to compete.

As of this writing, the current estimates for Russian competitors at the Rio Olympics is more than 200, according to the Daily Mail.

However, on July 30, the IOC, likely buckling to criticism, decided to set up a three-member panel that will ultimately decide on Olympic eligibility, based on recommendations from the federations. The IOC spokesperson said that the process would be completed by August 5, which also happens to be the day of the Olympics opening ceremonies.

One person of note who will not be competing – Yuliya Stepanova. The athlete who risked her career, and perhaps even her life to help blow the whistle on the Russian state-sponsored doping and cover-up operations by talking with journalists and WADA was ironically banned.

Rusanova of Russia competes during the woman's 800 metres semi-final heat 1 at the IAAF World Championships in Daegu
Yuliya Stepanova

The IAAF, which has been hawkish in banning Russians from international competition, recognized the bravery and impact of Stepanova by approved her competition in the Rio Olympics as a “neutral athlete”. Despite that, the IOC decided to ban Stepanova from competing for her failed drug tests in the past, while conveniently dropping its accountability, casting a blind eye in all the other cases by allowing a third party to determine Olympic eligibility.

By the way, the honorary president of the International Judo Federation is Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

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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