Sports Pulse: USA TODAY Sports reporter Rachel Axon breaks down the IOC’s decision to ban Russia from the Winter Olympics. USA TODAY Sports
LAUSANNE, Switzerland – As a day of reckoning came for Russia for operating a system of doping, two of the whistleblowers who laid the foundations of the investigations that led to unprecedented sanctions arrived at the same conclusion.
The International Olympic Committee’s decision to effectively ban Russia from the Pyeongchang Olympics while allowing individual athletes to compete under the Olympic flag was a fair one, Vitaly Stepanov and Grigory Rodchenkov said.
“I’d like to thank the IOC and its commission for actually, in my view, a fair decision,” Stepanov told USA TODAY Sports. “I’d also like to thank Grigory Rodchenkov and other whistleblowers for exposing the truth and trying to expose the corrupt system in Russia.
“Even as of (Monday) a lot of people felt that the IOC would not be able to do this. I understand that it’s a compromise, but … as the people running the global Olympic movement, they have to look for compromises all the time.”
Rodchenkov, Stepanov and Yuliya Stepanova, an elite runner and Stepanov’s wife, exposed a system in Russia that doped athletes and worked to cover up positive tests.
All of their lives have been irreversibly altered by their decision to come forward, with all three fleeing to the United States.
Despite that, they did not seek Russia’s demise but rather Russia’s reform. And, they hope, the IOC’s decision can put the country on that path.
“I would say he believes it was fair and appropriate,” said Jim Walden, Rodchenkov’s attorney. “He doesn’t wish ill on Russia, he doesn’t wish ill on clean Russian athletes. What he wishes is that the world would come together and stop paying lip service for the need for anti-doping reform. He’s gratified the IOC has taken this bold step.
“He knows that the Russians are not alone and that there are other state-sponsored systems. His only hope is that this is the first step in the long journey in vindicating clean sports forever.”
Unquestionably, the Stepanovs and Rodchenkov took some of the biggest steps.
Stepanov, who worked for the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, and Stepanova came forward in December 2014 in a report from German broadcaster ARD that detailed doping in Russian track and field.
They provided much of the evidence that formed the basis of the first investigation commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, which in late 2015 revealed widespread doping in Russian athletics.
The International Association of Athletics Federations suspended the Russian Athletic Federation as a result, causing the team to miss the Rio Olympics. That sanction remains in place more than two years later.
Six months after that first investigation was released, Rodchenkov came forward to detail a system of doping and urine swapping during the Sochi Olympics and a broader system that worked over four years to dope Russian athletes and cover up their positive tests.
A report by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren corroborated Rodchenkov’s account and showed more than 1,000 Russian athletes were involved the system.
While applauding the IOC’s decision, Stepanov and Rodchenkov were cautious about the path forward.
Missing from the IOC’s decision was a requirement that Russia publicly accept McLaren’s findings. WADA, the IAAF and the International Paralympic Committee have all required such an admission for Russia to be reinstated, yet Russian officials have continued to deny the existence of a doping system.
“As long as Russia refuses to accept responsibility, no one in the world of sports will believe that next caper isn’t being planned,” Walden said.
Russia had previously threatened to boycott the Games if forced to compete as neutral athletes. According to Russian media reports, President Vladimir Putin had been expected to address the question of Russian participation on Wednesday.
But Inside the Games reported that Putin did not discuss the IOC sanctions during his televised address.
A boycott would signal that Russia continues to deny the existence of the system, Stepanov said.
“Obviously, if that’s the message they want to send, to continue to send, there is no place for them in the Olympic movement,” he said.
But acceptance of the sanctions and allowing athletes to compete would be a tacit acceptance of the findings of the investigations into Russian doping, Stepanov said.
It might also allow Russia to step back into the fold. The IOC “may partially or fully lift the suspension of the ROC from the commencement of the closing ceremony” provided the ROC, athletes and officials respect and implement the IOC’s sanctions.
That could mean a Russian flag in the closing ceremony. For his part, Stepanov hopes that if that happens, it will be another step in the process of fixing anti-doping in Russia.
“In any process, in order to move on, the first step is to admit the guilt, so I guess in a way the IOC is offering this to Russia. And I don’t know how they will react,” Stepanov said. “But then also, re-instating the Russian Olympic Committee during the last day or during the closing ceremony, I guess that would really show what the Olympic movement is about, about uniting people, uniting countries, about forgiving.
“But even if that happens, I hope everybody realizes that there are still a lot of things that need to be done in Russia to change things, to change the doping culture. A lot of Russian sports officials must be fired. A lot of coaches must be fired. A lot of athletes must start admitting the guilt. So we are still at least a few years away before the country really changes and can be trusted anti-doping wise.”
Contributing: Nancy Armour