The overdue silver lining of the Russian doping scandal Are sports actually important? When you stack the issues in the sports world against the bigger problems in society, can you really say that sports matter?
Yes, you really can. The massive Russian doping scandal that emerged Monday proved this yet again.
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Monday's news from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) covers an 11-month investigation in 335 pages. The report tells of a "deeply rooted culture of cheating at all levels" within Russian athletics, including a sophisticated doping program that couldn't "have occurred without the explicit or tacit approval of Russian governmental authorities."
The report further states that the 2012 Summer Olympics in London were "sabotaged" by this culture of cheating and the fecklessness of Russian officials in trying to control it.
Cheating, hiding the truth and manipulating information? Sounds like a page ripped from Vladimir Putin's playbook indeed.
The Russian doping scandal comes on the heels of major questions about the integrity of figure skating competitions at the 2014 Winter Olympics, which Russia hosted, as well as suspicion about the bidding process that awarded Russia hosting rights for the 2018 World Cup. Meanwhile, Putin himself is a habitual line-stepper in global affairs, constantly poking, prodding, needling and testing other nations near and far.
'A stealth definer of social values'
A prominent gay rights activist named Vladimir Luxuria is detained by police upon entering the Shayba Arena at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Monday, Feb. 17, 2014, in Sochi, Russia.Image: David Goldman/Associated PressThese might not seem so connected at first blush. But we can find the ties that bind them by looking back at another recent news-maker in the sports world. Many hands were wrung when ESPN abruptly shuttered Grantland â a site that was very popular with the right people in the public discourse, but only marginally successful in a business sense.
Lamented some: A last vestige of quality in a sprawling media conglomerate was no more. That whine begged, of course, an obvious flip-side: Grantland was a sports site; just get over it and find something else to read.
But veteran sports journalist and former ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte hit the nail on the head, writing of Grantland's demise for The Nation. He perfectly summarized why it matters a site that took a high-minded, semi-intellectual view of the sports world was torpedoed while ESPN's endless army of talking heads continues yelling at you from backlit screens of every form.
"Sports is a stealth definer of social values, particularly among young people," Lipsyte wrote.
Members of the punk group Pussy Riot are attacked by Cossack militia in Sochi, Russia, on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014.Image: Morry Gash/Associated PressIn the NFL right now, defensive end Greg Hardy is starring and earning millions of dollars for the Dallas Cowboys while sickening details continue to emerge about him beating up his then-girlfriend a year and a half ago. The message for young people â the social values being defined through sports here â isn't complicated: If you are rich and talented, you face a different set of consequences for your actions.
Putin's 2014 Winter Olympics were run on a massively inflated budget while gay people and political activists were openly repressed before the eyes of the world. As the Olympics ended and the world's attention moved on, Putin sent Russian troops into the Crimea region as part of his ongoing campaign to bully and intimidate neighboring Ukraine.
Since then, we've seen Russia play games of brinksmanship in Europe and questions surround the Kremlin's role in the downing Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Meanwhile, the repression of gay Russians and political dissidents continues.
Minorities denied rights. Innocent travelers killed in commercial air travel. Reckless military antagonization. How can someone say sports matter in the face of such grave concerns? Because Putin and the Kremlin use sports to legitimize themselves on the world stage while doing dirty business away from the glare of arena lights.
"There's no question he sees it for himself and for his prestige as a huge gain," Nick Clegg, then the United Kingdom's deputy prime minister, said last summer of Putin's administration hosting events like the Sochi Olympics and 2018 World Cup. "The idea that the world should accord Russia that prestige is beyond belief. I don't know how many people have got to be shot out of the skies before people say enough is enough."
Better late than never
Canadian Richard Pound, Chairman of WADA's (World Anti-Doping Agency) Independent Commission arrives for a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday, Nov. 9, 2015Image: Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP/Associated PressIf we do accept that sports are a "stealth definer of social values," as Lipsyte wrote recently, then the message surrounding Russia isn't all that different from the one surrounding Hardy. It says: Abusing those weaker than you is bad, but if you have the money, the guile and the organization, you may still participate in and benefit from the world's biggest celebrations of common humanity and worldwide community.
And so we reach Monday's WADA report, which lays bare a major doping operation within Russia's sports infrastructure. The WADA report describes many traits â cynicism, bullying, dishonesty, narcissism â that seem equally native to Russia's sporting operations as its recent behavior on the global stage.
The WADA report could threaten Russian participation in future Olympics and other global competitions as the repercussions of its findings continue to ripple. If this happens, Russia would be temporarily banned for cheating within the lines of athletic competitions, not for the bigger injustices it has rendered off the field under Putin's Kremlin.
Still, the message would be the same. It's a message the world has so far failed to deliver, but one better sent late than never: Sit out until you learn to play nice.