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Is It Fair To Ban All Russian Athletes From The Olympics?

This is Strength in Numbers, a column exploring the science of sports and athleticism. I welcome your feedback, suggestions and news tips. Email me, leave suggestions in the comments section or tweet to me @CragCrest.

Pole vaulter Yelena Isinbaeva wants an opportunity to compete at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro this summer. Problem is, she’s Russian.

Isinbaeva is the world record holder in her event and already has two Olympic gold medals to her name. But in November, after a World Anti-Doping Agency report that documented systematic, state-sponsored doping in Russian athletics, track and field’s governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations, suspended Russia from competition. And with that, Isinbaeva’s chance to contend for a third Olympic gold medal was jeopardized.

On June 17, the IAAF will meet and decide whether to keep the ban in place for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. If it does stay, Isinbaeva has vowed to sue. “It’s a direct violation of human rights, discrimination,” Isinbaeva told The Associated Press,1 holding up forms documenting recent drug tests she had passed as evidence that she is clean.

The Russian doping scandal has raised a sharp conflict between the rights of individual athletes and the fight against doping. We now have evidence that Russia ran a systemic, state-sanctioned doping program. What we don’t have is evidence that every single Russian athlete took part. Is it fair to punish a whole nation of athletes? When is it OK to potentially deprive clean athletes of a chance to compete in order to punish their associates who cheated?

It’s easy to sympathize with Isinbaeva. I certainly did at first blush, and so did my friend and former ski rival Sarah Konrad, a 2006 Olympian in cross-country skiing and biathlon2 who chairs the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Athletes Advisory Council. “If I had been doing everything right and all of a sudden I couldn’t compete, I would be so heartbroken and angry,” she said.

But Konrad has reconsidered her position in light of the mounting evidence on Russia’s misdeeds. The 335-page WADA report that sparked the IAAF ban in November presented findings of a “deeply rooted culture of cheating” that was carried out with help from doctors, coaches, laboratory staff and even Russian security officials.3 The report documented a system that used coercive practices to encourage athlete participation in doping, bribes to encourage IAAF officials to look the other way and “intentional and malicious destruction of more than 1,400 samples by Moscow laboratory officials.” And the damning revelations didn’t end there. In a story published by The New York Times in early May, the former head of the Russian anti-doping lab, Grigory Rodchenkov, described an elaborate scheme carried out by lab members during the 2014 Sochi Olympics to swap clean urine samples for the tainted ones produced by Russian athletes who were doping. And the problem may extend even further back in time — recent retesting of samples from the 2012 London Games found positives on eight Russian athletes.

Russian federation 148
Italy 123
India 96
Belguim 91
France 91
Turkey 73
Australia 49
China 49
Brazil 46
Republic of Korea 42
Nations with the most (caught) dopers, 2014

Source: WADA

What does all this mean for the Rio Olympics? U.S. Anti-Doping Agency Chief Executive Travis Tygart wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed that “to protect clean athletes, the Russian track and field federation must not be allowed to participate in the Rio Olympics.” Since the WADA report came out, USADA has pushed for a comprehensive investigation of all Russian sports, not just track and field, and if such an investigation substantiates allegations that Russian officials have interfered with anti-doping tests, “then the entire Russian delegation should be barred not only from the 2016 Olympic Games but from international competition indefinitely,” Tygart wrote.

The sanctions Tygart proposes are aimed at making cheating riskier. Doping will continue as long as its benefits outweigh its consequences, and anti-doping efforts have not yet managed to sufficiently flip the ratio. “If you break the rules, there have to be consequences, or you’ll never get people to follow the rules,” Konrad said. “If the doping is coming from the state, you have to punish the state.” Simply banning individual athletes doesn’t hit the masterminds behind a doping program, who can just enlist new athletes and continue unabated.

“I’m sure there are clean Russian athletes,” Konrad said, “but as harsh as it might sound, I almost see them as a necessary casualty at this point.” It’s the Olympic equivalent of the trolley car problem — do you do something that’s certain to harm a few so that you can save a greater number?

Anti-doping rules are often framed as a way of punishing cheaters, but they have another important purpose: to give athletes who aren’t cheating a chance at a fair match. It’s these athletes who stand to benefit when dopers are eliminated from play.

Canadian cross-country skier Beckie Scott has become a prominent voice for disenfranchised clean athletes. Scott did not receive her Olympic gold medal until two years after she’d finished the 5-kilometer individual pursuit behind two Russian skiers who were later disqualified for doping in the 2002 Games. As chair of the WADA Athlete Committee, Scott has led the push for a swift, independent and transparent investigation into the allegations of Russian wrongdoing at the 2014 Winter Olympics. But for every Beckie Scott there are countless other athletes who never made the rankings or earned a place on the team, because they were beaten out by competitors who played dirty.

Before the London Olympics, I interviewed Olympic gold medalist DeeDee Trotter, a sprinter who said that doping scandals in track and field had cast a dark shadow on her own accomplishments. I hated feeling this way, but I, too, found myself wondering if she could really be clean, given all the scandals in her sport and the athletes who’d previously insisted to me that they would never dope.

What’s at stake here isn’t just the fate of a few athletes, it’s the credibility of the whole enterprise. Every time another athlete gets popped for doping, it casts doubt on the honor of everyone else in that sport. “I realize it’s really harsh to keep athletes out of the game,” Konrad said, “but if that’s what we need to preserve the credibility of the games, then that’s what needs to happen.”


  1. Isinbaeva has opinions about human rights. In 2013, before the Sochi Games, she drew controversy for remarks criticizing foreign athletes who had spoken out against a Russian anti-gay law, saying, “When we go to different countries, we try to follow their rules.” She also said, “We consider ourselves like normal, standard people; we just live boys with women, girls with boys … it comes from the history,” though she later blamed her remarks on poor English.

  2. Konrad is the only woman to have competed for the U.S. in two different sports at a single Winter Olympics.

  3. The WADA investigation was spurred by a documentary aired by the German broadcaster ARD that presented interviews with people involved in the Russian doping program, including anti-doping official Vitaly Stepanov and his wife, Yuliya Stepanov, an 800-meter runner.

Christie Aschwanden was a lead science writer for FiveThirtyEight. Her book “Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery” is available here.