The Futility Of Collective Punishment: Russia, Doping And WADA


Collective punishment has a primitive resonance. It lacks focus, is disproportionate, and is, by nature, poor in its judgment.  It suggests that responsibility is cultural, total, and institutional, flickering in the moment of vengeance.

At international law, concepts of collective punishment are generally frowned upon.  The Geneva Conventions prohibit such measures in, or instance, the implementation of disciplinary measures,  or the application of collective penalty “for individual acts” (Geneva POW Convention, Art 46, para 4; Geneva Convention III, Art 87, para 3).  The 1977 Additional Protocol I also makes that injunction clear.

Despite such cautionary injunctions, the temptation to exclude in wholesale fashion does crop up from time to time.  Those in the business of punishment remain tempted.  In the case of the Olympics and the issue of doping, it has found form in voices favouring a ban of Russia for the Rio de Janeiro Games.  Much of this had already been given a spur with the finding of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) upholding a ban on the country’s 68 track and field athletes.

The state has been accused largely for adopting what is termed the Disappearing Positive Methodology. Officials were said to have swapped dope-contaminated urine for non-dope equivalents to guarantee a subsequent clean result.[1]

According to Richard McLaren’s World Anti-Doping Agency report, the instigation of that program came from the Russian ministry of sport in 2010 in light of the country’s poor showing at the Winter Olympics at Vancouver.  Twenty-eight sports were implicated.

Steroid cocktails ingeniously designed to evade detection were also concocted, much of this taking place under the direction of whistleblower Dr. Grigor Rodchenko as head of the Moscow laboratory.  The role of the intelligence services (the FSB), of which Rodchenko admitted to being a member, seemed to the final nail in this widening coffin.

Such findings stirred former WADA head, John Fahey, to insist that the only appropriate measure here was a collective one.  If the IOC were to exclude Russia “I think they would be applauded.” Doing so would be a “statement in favour of clean athletes.  What is the point of having that sort of sanction if you don’t use it.”[2]

In the case of the doping allegations regarding Russia, athletes who have trained for years risk being deprived a run at the Olympics. Not that a disruption of proceedings at Rio should not be entertained.  Having been conceived and practiced as a monument to racial, cultural and political pursuits at stages of its history, the Olympics has never been nobly inclined.  Athletes have tended to be hostages to the fortunes of others.

The idea of excluding a country wholesale brings with it dangers that decision makers may well not see. It eliminates specific, untainted talents who also deserve to be protected in international sport. It also violates that great presumption of innocence by pre-emptively judging the conduct of all athletes.

This is not a point that bothers Fahey, who lazily assumes that allowing athletes not affected by a doping program to participate would put “the IOC in a precarious position in terms of its credibility.”  It is hard to believe how the IOC could possibly get through such a decision untainted.

The broader issue of creating further fracture within the institutional framework of sport is also very much at the forefront of arguments. Banish Russia, ostensibly to uphold broader Olympic values, which in any case are deeply artificial as they are, is not a grand precedent to emulate. When we are speaking of the Olympic brand, what is meant is never clear.  The ideal, for one, has long ceased to be relevant.

Former International Olympic Committee vice president Kevan Gosper, a figure involved in the boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980, told ABC News Radio that a return to that move is far from desirable.  “I can’t remember anything quite so complicated involving the welfare of athletes, doping, and one of the most important countries – not only political – but in terms of Olympic history.”[3]

There are also structural impediments. The move on the part of the International Association for Sport in June was to expand its powers regarding moves against members in contravention of the anti-doping rules.  Deferral to individual sports bodies, in other words, seems to be the accepted norm.

Furthermore, it also suggests that the state in question will have no incentive not to remain rogue.  Group punishments can actually negate the incentive to alter, eliminating any deterrent effect. The history of the Olympics, far from being one of harmonious interaction, has been characterised by prejudice, politics and power.  Beware, as Gosper notes, making “the wrong move with an important country like Russia”.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: [email protected]




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