State-sanctioned Olympics cheating

Herodotus, who is known as the “Father of History,” wrote in his 440 BC book, The Histories, a story about the spirit of competition the Ancient Greeks associated with the Olympic Games.

A group of deserters from Arcadia were brought before Xerxes, the Persian king, who asked what the Greeks were doing.

“They are holding the Olympics,’ was the reply, ‘and watching the athletic and equestrian events.’

“‘What is the prize that they are competing for?’

“‘For an olive crown.’ At this Tritantaichmes said something very noble — and as a result Xerxes took him to be a coward — so again we have a Persian who just does not understand.

“When he was told that the prize was not financial but a crown, he could not stop himself saying in front of everyone: ‘Oh no, Mardonius! What sort of men have you led us to fight? They compete not about money but about excellence.’”

The ancient Olympic Games, established in 776 BC, were both a religious and athletic festival held every four years in honour of the Greek god, Zeus, at Olympia. On the first day of the games, the athletes swore an oath before the statue of Zeus to comply with the rules of the competition; that is, not to cheat or take bribes. The fathers, brothers and trainers of the participants also took the same oath. And, the hellanodikai, which literally means Judges of the Greeks, who were the umpires of the competition and supervised the training of athletes at Olympia, swore an oath to make fair judgements and not to take bribes. These judges were selected from the people living in the region of Ellis (Eleans), as the nearby community was responsible for running the Olympics; much in the same way that today’s modern games are under the auspices of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

But bribery and cheating did take place. In one instance, during the 98th Olympiad (332 BC), Callippus of Athens bought out his competitors to win the pentathlon (five events). His bribery was uncovered and the Elean judges ordered Callippus and those who had accepted the bribes to pay a heavy fine.

The Athenians refused to pay and sent the orator Hyperides to persuade the Eleans to cancel the fine. The orator was unsuccessful. The Athenians still refused to pay and said they wouldn’t attend subsequent Olympic Games. In effect, the Athenian state had intervened to support an offending athlete against a governing athletic body as a matter of national pride. Sound familiar?

But the Eleans didn’t care, as they firmly believed that cheaters had to be punished.

By refusing to pay, the Athenians brought the displeasure of the gods upon themselves. Subsequently, the Delphic oracle declared the Athenians would receive no responses to their queries (the oracle was consulted by the Greeks on important questions such as whether to go to war or to make peace) which was a severe penalty to incur.

Today’s IOC had an opportunity to follow the Elean example and severely sanction Russia for state-run systematic doping and subsequent cover-ups that were uncovered by investigator Richard McLaren, acting on behalf of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). The McLaren Report alleges the participation by top Russian officials in the drug cheating, including Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose name also appears in the report.

Similar to the Athenians in 332 BC, Russian state officials protested the findings of the McLaren Report, even alleging a conspiracy of nations such as the U.S., Canada, England, France, Australia, New Zealand and Germany to keep their athletes out of the Olympics.

The IOC decided against imposing a blanket ban of all Russian athletes from participating in the Summer Olympic Games, which start on August 5 in Rio de Janeiro; instead, opting to leave any bans to individual athletic federations. The AIIF had already banned Russian track and field athletes from participating in Rio, which was upheld by a recent Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling.

While Russia as a nation is not banned from the Olympics, only athletes from that country with a spotless record — who haven’t tested positive for banned substances — will be allowed to compete in Rio.  “The entry of any Russian athlete ultimately accepted by the IOC will be subject to a rigorous additional out-of-competition testing programme in co-ordination with the relevant IF (international federation) and WADA,” according to the July 24 release from the IOC. “Any non-availability for this programme will lead to the immediate withdrawal of the accreditation by the IOC.”

In addition, “The IOC EB (executive board) reaffirms its serious concerns about the obvious deficiencies in the fight against doping. The IOC thus emphasises again its call to WADA to fully review their anti-doping system. The IOC will make its contribution to this review by proposing measures for clearer responsibilities, more transparency, better supervision procedures and more independence.” The statement is an admission that a doping problem exists and the IOC has been remiss in its methods to uncover cheaters.

The action taken by the IOC was called by Canada’s Dick Pound, the former World Anti-Doping Agency president, who authored a damning report into state-sponsored doping in Russia last November, a decision showing that the IOC has zero tolerance for doping unless it’s Russia (Guardian article). Pound said it was an opportunity squandered by the IOC.

As related in the Guardian article: “The 59-member Institute of National Anti-Doping Organisations called the news ‘a sad day for clean sport,’ adding: ‘The IOC has ignored the calls of clean athletes, a multitude of athlete organisations, and of leading National Anti-Doping Organisations, to do the right thing by excluding Russia.’”

Canadian Olympian Adam Van Koeverden expressed disappointment and frustration with the IOC decision (CBC News). It is a sentiment held by other Canadian athletes, who want to compete in Rio on a “clean playing field.”

As was the case in the ancient Olympics, today oaths are taken. But while each athlete took the oath before a statue of Zeus in Olympia, today, a representative of the athletes from the host country promises: “In the name of all the competitors I promise that we shall take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules which govern them, committing ourselves to a sport without doping and without drugs, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honor of our teams.” And a judge, also from the host nation, swears an oath to “officiate in these Olympic Games with complete impartiality, respecting and abiding by the rules which govern them in the true spirit of sportsmanship.”

But unlike the ancient Olympics when cheaters were severely sanctioned by the Eleans, the IOC has let an entire nation off the hook and made the entire Olympic movement suspect across the world.