Russia: The Sporting Champions of Europe?
The first fortnight of August saw the inaugural multisport European Championships take place, with a total of 52 nations taking part in the action. In various Scottish locations and in Berlin the event featured seven sports: athletics, aquatics, cycling, golf, gymnastics, rowing and triathlon.
Alongside the launch of this newly founded European Championship was the unveiling of a European Championship Trophy; to be received by the nation who accumulated the most gold medals (as opposed to total gold, silver and bronze medals) across the tournament. This year’s trophy was awarded to Russia, in recognition of their 31 gold medals. However, this decision has been greeted with significant criticism and raises the question: is it correct to recognise a nation as the champions of European sport, following a state-sponsored doping scandal?
With a total of 51 Olympic medals having been stripped for doping violations, the most of any country, Russia have been placed at the forefront of controversy surrounding drug law violations within international sport. Although this is not a new scandal; seven Russian track and field athletes were suspended ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, for manipulating their urine samples. Similar suspensions have occurred at other major tournaments since, notably with 111 Russian athletes being removed from the Rio Olympics by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
While a majority of the consequential doping bans have impacted Russian track and field athletes, as seen by the ban during this year’s European Championships’ athletics, violations have also been uncovered in other sports. The 2016 McLaren Report revealed that Disappearing Positive Methodology was also used previously to cover up positive urine samples from Russian athletes in other disciplines now featuring at the championships; cycling, swimming, rowing and triathlon.
Following multiple appeals from innocent athletes impacted by the widespread banning of Russian athletes, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) Doping Review Board agreed that applications of 33 athletes had met the exceptional eligibility criteria to compete in international competition as neutral athletes in 2018, whilst the Russian national federation remains suspended. Consequently, a team of Russian athletes competed under the European Athletics Flag as Authorised Neutral Athletes (ANA), alongside the 51 other competing nations in Berlin, winning six medals in total but being exempt from the official medal table due to their lack of a national status.
Russian athletes competed in five of the seven sports, with no athletes in the Athletics and Golf events, and yet still topped the medal table with the greatest number of gold medals (Great Britain came second with the most medals in total).
Whilst it is incredibly important to both recognise and illustrate the longstanding damage to reputations - of individuals, nations, and sports - following positive drugs tests, it is also vital for the recovery of such sports that once necessary precautions have taken place, matters are moved on from. Although it may arguably be ‘too soon’ to pronounce Russia as the champions of European sport as suspensions and investigations continue to take place, the cynical narrative on social media that these medals will soon be reassigned is more damaging for the sport than anything else. Similarly, the act of athletes competing as Authorised Neutral Athletes (ANA) has been a necessary reprimanding for the Russian Athletics Federation, but should not be allowed to blight the careers of those particular athletes, for they are the ones who have been deemed as being clean during an era of mass-doping.
If we continue to allow Russian sport to be tainted in retrospect of previous violations, young talent who have joined teams post-scandal, alongside those having legally accomplished incredible achievements in the last decade, will go unfairly unappreciated; innocent until proven guilty.