ON THE EVENING of Dec. 5 in Lausanne, Switzerland, members of the IOC announced that Russia's Olympic team would be banned from the 2018 Winter Games, a penalty for operating a vast, state-sponsored doping program that included brazen cheating at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. Next February in PyeongChang, South Korea, there will be no Russian flags, no Russian anthem and no Russian dignitaries spending bloated per diems and wearing team swag. There will, however, be Russian athletes. Stay with me.
It's exceedingly tempting to celebrate this ban of the Big Bad Russians as a watershed moment in sports' interminable war against doping. One of the most successful national programs in recent Olympic history cheated with breathtaking audacity, was caught and now will be punished in a very public way. Russia, and before Russia the Soviet Union, has long used athletic—and, most pointedly, Olympic—success as a means of demonstrating its national might. (And let's be honest: We do the same thing here in the U.S., co-opting Shaun White to validate our greatness ... at halfpipe?) There's little doubt that this is a harsh punishment on a symbolic level. The Russian Olympic athletic system will surely suffer.
But the tangible effects of the ban are more slippery. This is inarguably a victory in the doping wars, but it is just one victory and could be less significant than it appears. The Russians were not caught by officials in the antidoping system. They were caught by whistle-blowers and journalists, most pointedly Rebecca R. Ruiz of The New York Times and filmmaker Bryan Fogel, whose Icarus also shined a light on the system. It is naive to think that such a unique case will shut down doping in sports.
There's plenty of evidence that antidoping has improved in small, incremental steps, but the scientists and officials who are fighting for clean sports remain the equivalent of junior firemen, rising each morning and battling the inferno of illegal drug use with their little buckets and shovels. This moment, while in many ways satisfying, does little to change that reality.
Moreover, Russian athletes will compete in Korea. They must just prove themselves clean, as determined by an IOC panel. This of course is problematic and paradoxical. On the one hand, the IOC has banned Russia for its corruption of the antidoping infrastructure, in effect proving that cheating on a massive scale is possible. On the other hand, the IOC has left open the door for Russian athletes who are "clean," as determined by the same antidoping infrastructure that their nation proved was corruptible.
In PyeongChang, Russian athletes will pass their doping tests and win medals. They will wear a neutral uniform, but the playing of the Olympic anthem for any such gold medalists will only serve to call attention to the hypocrisy of their presence.
The most effective statement would have been a full ban of all Russian athletes. Is that fair to those athletes who have never cheated, and in some cases who have trained entirely outside the Russian athletic system? It is not. But the Olympics, while contested by individuals, are at their core a meeting of nations. Athletes wear the colors of the countries they represent. Yes, it can feel inauthentic sometimes, as some have increasingly nation-shopped for opportunity, but the connection between athlete and country is the heart of the Olympic Games.
So while Dec. 5 was indeed a day for celebration, fundamentally, little has changed. Perhaps cheaters felt a jolt of fear. But that will surely pass. The victory is incomplete. The battle against doping will continue for as long as there are medals and prize money.
BY THE NUMBERS
Medals stripped from Russian athletes for doping at the Sochi Olympics.
Russia's revised medal count from 2014, which took the nation from first place (with 33) to fifth.