The Winter Olympics could not pass without two Russian athletes making themselves the punchlines of further jokes about doping. (One was busted from the curling competition: what possible drug could enhance performance at curling?)
Of course, with Russia officially banned from the Games after the scandal of its industrial scale, state-managed doping programme at the 2014 Winter Olympics, the Russian athletes permitted to participate at the Korean event were not even representing their country.
The Sochi scam, which involved a complex plan for tampering with sample bottles and replacing drug-contaminated urine of the competing athletes with clean samples they’d provided months earlier while training clean, was first reported by The New York Times — but only after its principal architect, the Russian scientist Grigory Rodchenkov, was already participating in a curious documentary project by an American amateur cyclist named Bryan Fogel. The film, Icarus, ended up winning this year’s Oscar for best documentary feature, mainly because Fogel, a first-time filmmaker, had stumbled on the sports doping story of the decade.
Fogel’s original script was a quixotic quest that involved him going on a doping programme, designed by Rodchenkov, that would be sophisticated enough (presumably using micro-dosing, masking agents, new drugs or new versions of drugs that WADA did not yet have a test for, etc) to escape detection in competition. Fogel’s point being to show how flawed and unreformed the anti-doping protocols in sport still are – even in a post-Lance Armstrong era. Whether that premise would have stood up to scrutiny is moot, because Rodchenkov was soon in hiding, having blown the whistle on Russia’s Sochi programme, and Fogel had his bombshell scoop.
Sport and geopolitics are always intertwined. The Cold War conflicts that carried over into track and field are not-so-distant memories – the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, for instance. Today, Russia is once again the villain of the piece — and not only for the breathtaking audacity of its state-sponsored doping programme that combined KGB spy craft with GDR efficiency. Russia has, of course, been found to have organised an extensive “influence campaign” using divisive social media tactics to sow discord and sway voters in the United States. Russian state agencies also appear to have worked in concert with WikiLeaks to distribute hacked emails to embarrass the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016. And Kremlin proxies may — depending on what, if anything, the Mueller investigation finally uncovers — have conspired with Trump campaign officials to change US foreign policy on sanctions against Putin’s circle in return for damaging information on Clinton.
In short, Russia is a thoroughly bad actor, a would-be resurgent superpower that is conniving and cheating on all fronts — especially to pick winners in sport and politics. And Putin is the evil puppet master at the centre of this intrigue.
As for the collusion story, a presumed central focus of the Mueller investigation, that is so far unproven. It may never be proven. And there may, indeed, be nothing to prove. The problem with the overheated, hyperbolic claims about a Putin-orchestrated conspiracy is that it not only hands too much power to the Kremlin gremlins, but it also absolves us of too much responsibility.
Check the historical record on sports doping. Russia gears up for one Winter Olympics, has the whistle blown, is caught, gets canned. Lance Armstrong ran a mafia-like organisation that successfully defrauded the Tour de France and millions of fans over seven consecutive years — in a deeply corrupted sport in which doping had been endemic, if less well regimented, for decades. He even managed to retire and stage a comeback before finally being unmasked. Lance, the all-American hero, was so pro at cheating and intimidation that he makes the FSB look like the Keystone Cops.
So, also, with the politics. Trump was not created by the Russian foreign ministry and the SVR. He’s a sketchy real estate mogul and reality TV huckster from Queens, New York. He is as authentically American as it gets, and so are his dumb, ugly politics: the anti-immigrant rhetoric, the demagogic lying, the incitement and insults against opponents, the dog-whistling to white supremacism, the militarist posturing, the racist manipulation of fear of crime… these strands of his chaotic, improbable rise worked because each has deep roots in US political culture. And what also has deep roots is American interference in other countries’ politics — with money and propaganda, or if they don’t work, by coup, assassination and regime change.
None of this is to deny that Putin is one bad dude. But the Russians are not the problem, either in sport or in politics. The problem is us.
This column was first published in Rouleur 18.3