Sports of The Times: How Will This Putin-I.O.C. Thriller End?

Sports of The Times: How Will This Putin-I.O.C. Thriller End?

Sports of The Times
By JULIET MACUR

Who else is enthralled by this holiday season’s blockbuster drama, Putin vs. Bach?

It’s a Cold War-era redux starring Vladimir V. Putin, the president of Russia, and Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee — two leaders who answer to no one.

Bach’s reputation, not to mention the credibility of his august organization, was wounded by Russia’s audacious doping program. He has just a short time left to decide how to save face. Putin, who calls the whole thing a Western conspiracy, has all but publicly dared Bach to respond with force.

They are in a standoff, nose-to-nose, shirt sleeves rolled up, each waiting for the other to blink.

The Olympic committee will announce on Tuesday how it is punishing Russia for one of the most ambitious and delicious (see its steroid cocktail recipe here) doping schemes in sports history. Many people outside Russia seem to believe that barring the Russians entirely from the Pyeongchang Games is fair and necessary, considering they corrupted the outcomes on the playing field and stole medals from clean athletes in several Olympics — most notably the Winter Games they hosted in Sochi, in 2014.

If only Bach’s reasoning were that linear.

The Olympic committee has a long track record of being too timid and much too slow in making strong decisions on sensitive subjects, especially when dealing with powerful nations that use sports to show off their strength. (See internet censorship at the 2008 Beijing Games or the issue of Russia’s anti-gay legislation before the Sochi Games.) When upset, those nations have the ability to shake the Olympic movement to its core.

Many Russian officials remain defiant — great acting? — despite enough evidence to fill a halfpipe. The Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov recently said that there had never been any state-backed doping in Russia. On the same day, the Russian Olympic Committee posted photos on its Twitter page of models wearing shirts with the words, “I don’t do doping,” when it unveiled its Olympic apparel.

And Putin said in early November that the doping bans involving Russians were just an American scheme to make him look bad before elections in March.

What happens if Bach sides with clean athletes, the real victims here, and gives Russia more than a slap on the wrist? The Russians have threatened to boycott the Pyeongchang Games, a take-our-ball-and-go-home gesture that would elicit little sympathy considering how many non-Russian athletes were deprived of Olympic glory in Sochi for the wrong reasons.

Even if the Olympic committee allows ostensibly clean Russian athletes to compete under a neutral flag — without any Russian symbols, such as its flag or anthem — the Russians will stay home, they’ve said. They won’t televise the Olympics, and they would block players from the Kontinental Hockey League, an international hockey league based in Russia that is second in importance only to the National Hockey League, from competing in Pyeongchang. Keeping those players — who are from many nations — from the Olympics would further dilute the hockey competition after the N.H.L. said its players would not participate.

Spoiler alert: Some insiders say this thing is going to fizzle.

“It’s just posturing,” said Harvey Schiller, who has worked in the Olympic movement for decades, including during the boycotts in the 1980s. “Russia has used the Olympics to make a strong political statement, so they want to compete. They would love to win the gold medal in hockey. And with the boycotts in the ’80s, everybody knows that it hurt both sides.”

On the issue of Russia keeping its K.H.L. players out of the Games, Schiller said there would be enough pressure from the International Hockey Federation to keep Russia from barring the players from Pyeongchang.

In a curious plot twist, the president of the K.H.L. is Dmitry Chernyshenko, who was in charge of the Sochi Games. After Sochi, he stood on a grand patio that overlooked some of the Games’ venues near the Black Sea, puffed out his chest and told me he was so proud of how Russia delivered what he called perfect Games.

That was all before the world found out what Russia truly had pulled off at those Games, and before the country’s resulting tumble down the medals standings.

Can Bach divine a way to punish Russia — like, really punish Russia — without triggering a boycott? That’s not an easy thing to do. It’s his second trip to the plate on this, and last time he struck out without even trying to swing.

Before the 2016 Rio Games, he and the Olympic committee had seemingly ample information on the Russian doping program, but he took the easy way out, deferring to the international sports federations to decide the fate of their athletes.

Now, several investigations later, all of that early evidence has been verified and reverified, and new material has been added to the pile. Bach even has reports from two investigations commissioned by his own organization. Can he possibly flinch?

In an interview with The New York Times last month, he said, “Nobody will be happy, and that is maybe a good sign.”

It was an echo of what he said less than two weeks before the Rio Games, after tossing the hot potato to the federations. “This may not please everybody on either side,” he said then of a decision that most certainly pleased Russia, since many of its athletes were allowed to compete in the Summer Games despite a report detailing extensive doping.

So this is a sequel, in a way. How will it end? The climax is Tuesday. Pop some popcorn. Grab some Junior Mints.

Published at Mon, 04 Dec 2017 13:53:40 +0000

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