Can we be fair to Russian athletes in Rio?

The recent doping scandal surrounding the Russian Olympic team has brought debate about banned substances in sports competitions, and the consequences of being caught using these substances, to the global stage. 

Nic Groombridge, author of Sports criminology, discusses who should really be held accountable in this situation and what should be done in the future to discourage doping. 

Nic GroombridgeFamously George Orwell claimed:

“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”

The last phrase is routinely cited but it is worth considering some of the context. Orwell was writing in the wake of visit by a Soviet Union football team he only calls ‘the Dynamos’ (actually an augmented Moscow team, see this more upbeat account). He mentions cricket, boxing, swimming and even cock-fighting but writes with a distant disdain for his subject (see Beck, 2013 on Orwell’s own sporting endeavours).

Earlier in the article he mentions the Olympics (Berlin, 1936) and suggests:

“the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe — at any rate for short periods — that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.”

He also mentions the involvement of big business, but his main focus is on the State.



Atos, The Winter Olympic Games in Sochi

So, in the current situation, Orwell might have had sympathies for the individual Russian athletes banned from the Olympics because of the actions of their State. Complicating the picture further is the position of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the international and National Governing Bodies of Sport (NGBs).

If we step away from the issues raised by the Russian case(s) other aspects become clear. Wrestler Narsingh Yadav tested positive for banned substances but claimed his food was spiked with steroids by two fellow wrestlers. India’s anti-doping disciplinary panel has accepted this.

Great Britain’s Lizzie Armitstead has recently won her case before the Court of Arbitration for Sport arguing that one of the three missed drugs tests was invalid and therefore she should not be banned. She was supported in this by British Cycling. British rower Zac Purchase, who won Olympic gold in 2008, tweeted “Imagine what we would be saying if she was Russian”.


Lizzie Armitstead, by David Iliff

On which note the official news agency of Russia, TASS, claims the International Swimming Federation has given the go-ahead to Nikita Lobintsev and Vladimir Morozov to swim at the Games. This might still be overruled by the IOC.

“changing perceptions of what is legal or illegal”

Nations might assist an individual athlete, but the accusation in the McClaren Report for the World Anti-Doping Agency (insufficiently Big Brother?) of the direct involvement of Russian State and NGBs harks back to the excesses of the East German State in ‘proving’ the superiority of communist sport.

All this might be sniffily ignored, but the international political ramifications are forcing it up the news agenda. The interlocking jurisdictions of sports and society and the changing perceptions of what is legal or illegal over time and between countries or NGBs should interest criminology.

State Crime has recently been advanced within criminology, as has Green Criminology. Understandably, their concerns have been with their immediate subject matter, but they, and a developing Queer Criminology, might all examine sport as crime and vice versa. I certainly see my work in this way.

But back to the individual athletes.

At the time of writing the numbers of those banned is rising but subject to appeal and possibly brute politico-economic reality. Moreover, some athletes – not all Russian – who are allowed to participate – whether previously ‘clean’ or not – will be banned at the Games or even many years later.

A New Path

I argue that as sport is part of society it should follow the same rules of society.

The argument for the legalisation or decriminalisation of drugs in society is not uncontested but is seen to be a legitimate position. Thus, the health perspective that is increasingly seen in discussion of drug use in society should be applied to sport. The harm potential of drugs, not their potential to enhance performance (sometimes exaggerated) should be our focus.

“the harm potential of drugs, not their potential to enhance performance…should be our focus”

FILE - In this March 4, 2011, file photo, Yulia Stepanova poses in an undisclosed location. The IAAF has approved Russian whistleblower Yulia Stepanova's bid to compete as a neutral athlete in the European championships and the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Stepanova was the first athlete accepted by track and field’s governing body on Friday July 1, 2016 to compete under "exceptional eligibility," granting her an exemption from the doping suspension of the entire Russian team. (AP Photo/Aleksander Chernykh, File)

Yullya Stepanova, The Sun

Therefore, (and with Orwell) the focus should be on the State’s responsibilities. But also on the supra state of Sport and its oppressive surveillance and policing of athletes.

Initially the IOC suggested the whistleblower Yullya Stepanova might run as a neutral in recognition of her part in exposing the systematic doping. However, because she had doped and received a ban they are now barring her. At the time of writing, the petition to allow her to run the 800m stands at 50,000 signatures.

My only experience of collective punishment is in the classroom but the treatment of Russian athletes is akin to this.

Therefore the solution might be (restorative sports justice?) for all Russian athletes to be allowed to participate but as neutrals – no flag, no anthem. Then in Japan 2020 we might work towards that applying to all nations.

#Olympics #Rio2016 #rioolympics2016 #russiandopingscandal

Sports criminology [FC]Sports Criminology by Nic Groombridge can be purchased here from the Policy Press website for special 20% discounted price £48.00.

Remember that Policy Press newsletter subscribers receive a 35% discount – if you’re not a member of our community why not sign up here today?

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

0 Responses to “Can we be fair to Russian athletes in Rio?”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Twitter Updates


Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print.

The work on the Policy Press blog is licensed under a Creative Commons licence.

%d bloggers like this: