THE DARKEST moment in track and field occurs just after an event's conclusion. That's when the realization sets in that we don't truly know if the victorious athlete has competed clean or used performance-enhancing substances. Or worse, that we're pretty sure it's the latter.
In fact, it is not the certainty of PED use that has dragged track and field to a place ... well, as Usain Bolt told me last month, "in a ditch somewhere." It is the unproven likelihood of PED use accompanied by little faith in a worldwide antidoping program and the knowledge that many in the sport will push the boundaries of legality in pursuit of victories and money.
Last Friday in Vienna, the IAAF, track and field's international governing body, announced that Russian athletes in those disciplines would be barred—by a unanimous vote of the IAAF council—from competing in this summer's Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The All Russia Athletic Federation had failed to satisfy conditions for reinstatement from a ban imposed last November. It was then that an independent commission of the World Anti-Doping Agency first detailed the scope of Russia's systemic doping program.
The IAAF did leave open the possibility that some Russian athletes would be allowed to compete independently (i.e., not under the Russian flag) if they "can clearly and convincingly show that they are not tainted by the Russian system because they have been outside the country and subject to other, effective, anti-doping systems." This amendment was added, said independent committee chairman Rune Andersen, an antidoping expert from Norway, because we "are living in a world of lawyers." The IAAF expects challenges to its ruling in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), but there seems little likelihood of the ban being overturned.
It would be cynical to view Friday's decision as anything but a step toward cleansing track and field. Russia is the first country to be banned from the Olympics for running a corrupt—or incompetent—antidoping program. And it is not just any country.
However, this is a very small step. Clearly not every athlete who might have competed for Russia in Rio doped, but just as clearly, the system is broken.
Many people will feel very good about this ruling. But while it's tempting to demonize Russia, it is not the only nation with athletes under suspicion. Last week U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun said in a statement that the ruling "gives a measure of hope to clean athletes that there are consequences not only for athletes who dope, but for countries which do not engage seriously in the fight against doping." As with others in similar positions, Blackmun needs to make sure his high horse is anchored securely. U.S. sprinters Justin Gatlin, Tyson Gay and Mike Rodgers have all served doping penalties. Kenya is awaiting approval from WADA that its antidoping program is in compliance with the agency's code after nearly 50 positive tests. And Ethiopia has six currently suspended athletes, though it is not under WADA or IAAF censure.
The effect on competition in Rio figures to be seismic. At the 2012 London Games, the U.S. won 28 track and field medals, and Russia was second, with 18, followed by Jamaica with 12 and Kenya with 11.
As much as Friday's decision is cause for optimism, it is also cause for concern. Russia was not—is not?—the only nation whose athletes cheated. One victory has been won in the fight against doping. But many more lie ahead.