Why personal endeavour must trump the chemists

There’s this scene in the Netflix drama Narcos (SPOILER ALERT) where the American DEA finally gets the Colombian drug lord who’s been murdering, racketeering and skulking about in a huge walk-in wardrobe full of money, only to discover a flaw. They can’t actually drag him to justice because he and his brother have taken the trouble to bribe the country’s president. The bad guys just have so much more cash and influence, and then there’s the impetus to be nice to them that only receiving a truck full of severed heads and limbs can inspire.

Now, why did I think about that as the International Olympic Committee suggested that it would be a fine gesture to welcome back Russia under their own flag at the next Olympics in Tokyo? Only two Russians athletes, apparently, tested positive for drugs (not those, the cheating ones) at the just-closed Winter Olympics which must have fallen below the IOC’s threshold of bothersome misdemeanours.

So here we all are again. A fellowship united in seeing no evil because that would be highly inconvenient.

Meanwhile, the whistleblowers who have provided vast, and what appears to be incontrovertible evidence of a systematic state-sponsored doping racket in Russia, are in hiding. The most recent, and the most damning, Grigory Rodchenkov, surfaced with dramatic timing in a BBC interview to say that “the Olympics could die” if radical reforms to support the fight against doping cheats are not made. But the fact that he had to declare this while dressed up like a hunted fugitive – which in essence he is – in balaclava and sunglasses that entirely obscured his face, says more.

He fears execution for telling the world about the degree to which the Russians cheated in Sochi, their home Olympics. And for making the salient point that “in general, many countries, and many national anti-doping organisations, are not interested at all to catch leading [cheating] athletes in their country”.

The counter-argument – that no doubt the senior management team of the IOC would make – is that Russia have changed their ways. As perhaps they have in Syria by suspending their bombing of an innocent population in line with the latest UN ceasefire. That whatever McMafia, the BBC’s recent series on Russian gangsters implied, Russian sport has become transparent, even penitent, and anyway redemption is a beautiful thing.

Such a biblical word “redemption” for such a bubonic plague of corruption as still inhabits the world of sport, and not just in Russia. It keeps happening because human beings decide that the risk of being caught cheating is no deterrent, compared to the international kudos, profit and worldwide beano-attending that gold medals won by gunned-up muscles can produce.

So the Russians, not for the first time, have been persuasive. Dick Pound, IOC member and former head of world anti-doping, has had to apologise for saying: “The only people that scare these old farts – [the leadership of the IOC] – are athletes saying, ‘If you won’t clean this up, we’re not going to participate in these events’.” Some poor young athlete will have to read the Olympic Oath in Japan in 2020 without actually gagging. And the brave Russian whistleblowers, who have exposed the rottenness at work, go to bed every night somewhere in a Western democracy wondering whether it will be their last.

Does anything stand against the prevailing – what shall we call it – pragmatism? Yes. Though they are constantly undermined by the dealing of their overlords, there remains those Olympic athletes – many or few, we have no idea – who reckon that winning is a matter of personal endeavour. They will not farm their body out to chemists for a reboot. Because where would the honour be in that?

If there is someone who embodied that spirit in Pyeongchang it was the woman who travelled perilously down a chute at 90mph with a chest infection and then celebrated with a little spell of knitting later in her room. Lizzy Yarnold, GB’s double-gold medallist in the skeleton, was cast off as a borderline eccentric for prizing decency over winning at all costs. Quietly and intelligently she maintains an unwavering line against drug cheats. She probably wasn’t even taking anything for her chest infection.

There’s her body suit, of course. Maybe the Russian social media bots and their acolytes will make hay with that and its super-fast properties. But, annoyingly for them, it’s legal and remains on the outside of the human body rather than chemically-altering the inside. That would seem a fairly open-and-shut argument. But you never know. The Vladimirs are nothing if not ingenious.

This is a very British outcome. To be partially consoled about the grim state of sport governance by a Miss Marple-esque figure, restoring order in chaos by wilful determination, a ferocious sense of justice and a couple of balls of knitting wool.


Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles

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