Shirley Babashoff can tell the International Olympic Committee why it should ban Russia from the Rio Olympics.
So can Alysia Montano.
Both former Olympians shed bitter tears when they saw their rightful places on the medal podium stolen by dopers. Both felt the agony of having their once-in-a-lifetime Olympic moment compromised by the cheaters in adjacent lanes.
Babashoff’s gold medals were reduced to silver 40 years ago at the 1976 Olympics when she swam against burly East Germans.
“It was horrible that no one believed me when I said what these girls with mustaches were doing in the pool was fake, when our team questioned how a tiny, poor, communist country could produce the best female swimmers in the world,” Babashoff said.
Montano was outrun by two Russians at the 2012 Games.
“I’m missing three medals and eight years of my life as a runner,” Montano said. “Has my whole professional career been a farce?”
Not only has doping endured as the dirty lie behind the Olympics’ beautiful ideals, but it’s gotten worse.
For the sake of athletes such as Babashoff and Montano, and all clean athletes, the IOC must tell Russia not to come to Rio. The Lords of the Rings must cast politics aside, risk the wrath of Russian president Vladimir Putin and save what shreds of integrity remain at the Olympics, which still have a romantic power greater than that of any other sporting event because the essential message is: “Not the triumph but the struggle.”
The IOC must act decisively in the wake of another stunning report about the elaborate scope of a state-sanctioned covert doping program in Russia that reached all the way up to the Kremlin. Exclude the entire team — unless individual athletes can prove they have been and are drug-free.
The World Anti-Doping Agency investigation, led by Richard McLaren, showed “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the Russian Ministry of Sport “directed, controlled and oversaw” the manipulation of test results and sample swapping in collusion with anti-doping labs and the Federal Security Service. McLaren confirmed the allegations of whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov, the ex-lab chief who has fled to the U.S. He was tasked with improving Russia’s medal count after the disappointing performance at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
The Court for Arbitration of Sport upheld the ban on Russia’s 68-member track and field team on Thursday, which gives the IOC authority and incentive for a collective ban of Russia’s 387-member team. Clean athletes who can’t prove they’re clean because of Russia’s contaminated system deserve sympathy, and the Rio Games will lose some of their competitive luster without the superpower that finished fourth in the 2012 medal count. But nobody wants to watch events in which every Russian medalist would be subject to suspicion.
Russia had a chance to reform its throwback to the East German and Soviet systems during the past year and a half, but has continued to flout the rules and aid athletes in cheating schemes.
Russia covered up at least 312 positive tests in 28 summer and winter sports from 2011 to August 2015, which included the London and Sochi Olympics, track and field world championships in Moscow and swimming worlds in Kazan.
McLaren called the system the “Disappearing Positive Methodology.” Positive test results were relayed to Yuri Nagornykh, the deputy minister appointed by Putin. Nagornykh reported 89 percent of those as negative.
Tamper-proof bottles were opened by security agents in order to swap out urine during the Sochi Olympics and prior to a 2014 WADA inspection. When Nagornykh needed help from agents, he called in his “magicians,” some of whom posed as lab techs, one as a plumber. McLaren found that 8,000 of 10,000 samples at the lab had been destroyed.
Key official Irina Rodionova developed a clean urine bank. She distributed to athletes a cocktail of steroids metenolone, turinabol and oxandrolone mixed with whiskey for males and vermouth for females that Rodchenkov created to sabotage tests. She nicknamed the potion “Duchess” after a traditional Russian drink.
In the dead of night, samples were switched through a mouse hole in a wall at the Sochi Games or altered with table salt and distilled water.
The 97-page report comes on top of previous reports of Russian athletes assuming fake identities and hiding at military bases to evade testers; bribes to suppress tests, and the old bathroom trick of opening a concealed bag of clean urine inserted into private parts while pretending to pee.
Putin warned that banning Russia would only wreck the Olympics, as the boycotts of Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984 did. It’s true that athletes were denied their fleeting Olympic pinnacle when much of the West joined the U.S. in protest over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, then four years later, the Soviets stayed home. The boycotts achieved nothing, and invasions by both countries have continued.
“We see a dangerous relapse of politics intruding into sports,” Putin said, hinting at a U.S.-led conspiracy to “formulate a negative image” of Russia.
Hypocrisy abounds less than three weeks before the first Olympics in South America. The IOC has been and may still be as corrupt as Russia. The awarding of the Games and massive construction projects by host cities are fraught with corruption.
Plenty of countries acting self-righteous have doping problems. China’s nefarious incidents include super-speedy runners and swimmers and pre-teen gymnasts with altered birth records. Kenya and Ethiopia are under scrutiny, Jamaica has been criticized, Canada gave us Ben Johnson and the U.S. is the home of BALCO, Marion Jones, Lance Armstrong and 2016 Olympian Justin Gatlin.
But Russia’s system goes beyond the rogue athlete, coach or chemist. The IOC could toss the decision to the 28 sport federations for an evaluation of each athlete’s case. Or it could take a strong, unprecedented stand.
Babashoff was derided as “Surly Shirley” by Americans for pointing out that her opponents had unusually broad shoulders and low voices. She got death threats for telling the truth. She was vindicated after the Berlin Wall fell and the files of East Germany’s mad scientists were opened. Her book, “Making Waves,” is fueling calls that dopers’ medals be stripped and given to those who deserve them.
“It would be easy to correct the record and show kids that you’ll never get away with cheating, and I’d like to see it fixed in my lifetime instead of having my grandkids pick up my medals,” Babashoff said from California, where she works for the U.S. Postal Service. “I love the Olympics but it’s sad that what happened to me is still relevant today. I don’t understand why athletes continue to put drugs in their bodies that were originally developed by Nazi doctors.”
In 2012, Montano would have won bronze if the Russians who finished first and third and have been recommended for a lifetime ban by WADA had not competed. After much soul-searching, Montano stuck with her tainted sport and was looking forward to an Olympics without the Russian track and field team. But with 130 meters to go in her 800-meter final at the U.S. Trials, Montano tripped and fell. She got up and jogged slowly toward the finish line, sank to her knees twice on the homestretch and bent her forehead to the track, sobbing about the irony of her quest. Montano, 30, wearing her trademark flower behind her ear, finished a full minute behind the field.
“What dopers steal from our children, from my daughter, is the idea of ‘That’s amazing!’” Montano said. “That makes me angry. And depressed.”