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COMMENT: Throw Russia out but keep Kenya in the Olympic Games

13 May 2016, 21:33

The trouble with collective punishment is that innocent people get hurt. Banning both Russia and Kenya from the Rio de Janeiro Olympics for doping would rob athletes who haven't sunk to pills and needles of a life-changing opportunity.

So be it.

At least with Russia.

Not so, Kenya.

Both countries have all but exhausted the patience of those who cling to the hope — are there many left? — of dope-free competition. By resisting and heel-dragging when they should have been bending over backward to clean up, they have burned through nine lives and run up giant tabs in the last-chance saloon. Pressure for the ultimate punishment — no Rio Games for two countries that won 93 medals between them at London 2012 — is growing.

The difference between them is that only Russia stands accused of being an actual drug pusher, with state officials — including the security services — alleged to have had a hands-on role not only in widespread, systematic doping in the host country of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and 2018 football World Cup but also in elaborate cover-ups that whistleblowers have helped expose.

The latest of those is Grigory Rodchenkov. As head of Russia's anti-doping laboratory, he should have been one of the good guys but instead became part of the problem. His account to the New York Times of a drug-fueled plot that hoisted Russia to the top of the Sochi medal table must be taken with salt, because they are the words of someone who, by his own admittance, willfully, consciously and even proudly betrayed the trust of the 2,500 athletes who traveled to Russia in 2014.

"A turncoat's libel" was President Vladimir Putin's response, through spokesman Dmitry Peskov, to the allegations on Friday.

Still, the degree of detail from the scientist who fled Russia for the safety of Los Angeles is compelling: clean urine supposedly collected from athletes months in advance and used to replace dirty samples during the Olympics; a spreadsheet from Russia's sports ministry said to have listed doped athletes; athletes in turn allegedly texting the ministry with coded information so their tainted samples could be identified and poured down a toilet; a switcheroo of bottles through a hole in a wall of the Sochi drug-testing lab; an overseer, identified by Rodchenkov as a Russian intelligence officer, who found a way to unlock what were supposedly tamper-proof drug-sample bottles.

Perhaps most alarming: the thrust of these claims of state involvement in doping isn't entirely new. In a report last November on what they determined was a "deeply rooted culture of cheating" in Russian athletics, investigators for the World Anti-Doping Agency had already detailed evidence of Russian intelligence agents sniffing around the labs in Sochi and in Moscow, questioning and intimidating staff and telling them not to collaborate with the WADA probe.

This, if all true, would make Lance Armstrong small potatoes.

Unlike Russia, Kenya is more of a failed state than a rogue one in the fight against doping. In a 2014 interview, Kenyan Sports Minister Hassan Wario looked me in the eye and talked of "a very clear roadmap" to tackle the doping scourge that has since only grown and gravely undermined the East African country's hard-earned reputation as a world leader of distance-running.

Eighteen months on, Wario is still promising swift action. Yet the anti-doping agency Kenya long promised still isn't fit for purpose and anti-doping legislation passed by Kenya's parliament is "a complete mess," WADA declared this week.

Ultimately, in Rio, this would boil to down trust.

If, when, a Russian climbs onto the top step to collect Olympic gold, what thoughts might flash through the minds of athletes below them on the podium and the millions watching on TV? Increasingly likely: that they've been robbed by a country that back in 2009 was already being warned that its athletes risked dying from the abuse of banned blood-boosting drugs and transfusions; a country where entire sports — race-walking being the prime example — are unbelievable; a country that in 2014 had more doping violations, 148 in 22 sports, than any other; a country that WADA figures show still isn't playing ball with international efforts to drug-test its athletes.

A country, in short, that by being there could only tarnish the Rio Games and turn Olympic organizers into abettors and co-conspirators.

Kenya, less so.

A careful look at the 40 runners busted for doping since the London Games shows that the majority weren't Olympic caliber. It seems unfair that a proven champion like marathoner Eliud Kipchoge, who is out pounding dusty forest tracks before the sun rises and is in his second decade as a world-beater, should be prevented for competing for the Olympic gold missing from his collection because bureaucrats in Nairobi, haven't got their act together and because low-grade Kenyan athletes being busted for doping.

Track and field's global governing body is giving Kenya more time to sort itself out. That makes sense. Barring Kenya's runners from Rio would punish too many for the mistakes of too few.

With Russia, it's the other way around. Too many have cheated or been involved. Too few have spoken out.

One more chance would be one too many.

- AP


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