Q: I have been watching the Olympics, and I still don’t understand something: I thought the Russians were banned because of doping, so how can their athletes be competing? What’s more, I was told that until about 1990 there was a rule stating that only amateurs could compete. Did the Soviet government pay their athletes’ living expenses but not give them a salary so they could say they weren’t professionals? I remember how unfair it seemed watching our college students competing against their much more mature athletes.
C.B., of Edwardsville
A: For much of the last 70 years, the International Olympics Committee has tried to walk a public-relations tightrope when dealing with one of our chief Communist rivals.
By its own admission, the IOC knew full well that the Soviet Union was flaunting the rules on amateurism even before the country made its debut at the 1952 Olympics, just as the country’s athletes were shown to have engaged in a widespread doping scheme the past few years.
But just as Major League Baseball wouldn’t want to disqualify the New York Yankees from a World Series, the IOC didn’t want to just throw da bums out because it would likely lose the interest of millions of sports fans around the world. That would cut into the competition’s prestige, not to mention its potential revenue stream. So to keep the Soviets/Russians in the games, it pretty much turned a deaf ear to the criticism of government subsidies decades ago before reaching an awkward compromise in the latest scandal.
Even before the Soviet Union competed in its first games, not everyone was happy with the arrangement. On Oct. 28, 1947, the IOC’s J. Sigfrid Edstrom reported the following to the group’s executive committee after watching the Moscow Dynamo soccer team play in Sweden the previous summer:
“The team and a number of reserves are engaged by the state, which pays them their annual salary. They are in continuous training for eight months of each year, training every day. They are fed well, have very few pleasures in life except playing football. ... This verifies what I have heard before, that the organization of athletes in Russia is carried on by the state.”
Two weeks later, committee member Col. P.W. Scharroo concluded that Soviet athletes “do not conform to the amateur laws of the IOC and cannot take part in the Olympic games.”
Yet after testing the waters at the 1948 games in London, the Soviet Union in April 1951 declared it had accepted the rules of the IOC and requested admission to the group. After long debate, the IOC apparently decided to go with the lesser of two evils and allow the Soviets in for the 1952 Helsinki Games, where it picked up 71 medals, second only to the United States’ 76.
“Many members believed there was no amateurism, nor respect for the Olympic Code behind the Iron Curtain,” future IOC President Avery Brundage said in a statement after the committee approved Soviet membership in May 1951. “Others felt that if Russian youth became acquainted with the Olympic Code of fair play and good sportsmanship, benefits might accrue, not only to the participants, but also to the rest of the world. After considerable discussion, recognition was granted.”
As a result, until professional tennis players were allowed to compete in 1988 in Seoul, the IOC simply held its nose while the Soviet government continued, in essence, to subsidize its “amateur” athletes.
“Most Soviet athletes are, under our definitions, professionals, though they masquerade as state amateurs,” J.N. Washburn wrote in a 1974 New York Times think piece. “For the sake of appearances, many are passed off as members of the Soviet armed forces. Of the 20 players on the Soviet national ice hockey team, eight are listed as members of the air force and seven as members of the army. Playing hockey seems to be their major military duty. ... The burden is on the Soviet Government to prove that its amateurism really does meet Olympic standards. Since the Soviet Olympic Committee was created in 1951, the International Olympic Committee has declined to ask hard questions of Moscow.”
Last fall, the IOC tiptoed down this fine line of sports diplomacy again. A year before, the World Anti-Doping Agency reported an “institutional conspiracy” involving the Ministry of Sport, Russia’s own anti-doping agency and the Federal Security Service, the country’s main intelligence and security agency. The doping scheme, which included swaps of urine samples, was used by more than 1,000 athletes at the Olympic Games from at least 2012 as well as at other international competitions.
But instead of totally banning Russia from the current games, the IOC said it did not want to penalize the 169 athletes who demonstrated that they did not violate the rules. So it came up with the compromise you’re seeing: The athletes cannot wear Russia’s colors, they cannot display the Russian flag during medal ceremonies and they’re referred to as Olympic Athletes from Russia, or OAR. Any medals they win are individual and are not added to Russia’s historic medal count.
Nevertheless, the IOC wound up in hot water again Monday when Olympic curler Alexander Krushelnytsky reportedly failed a drug test, jeopardizing the bronze medal he won last week in mixed doubles.
Let the diplomatic games continue.
What Soviet Olympian holds the record for most gold medals as well as medals overall?
Answer to Monday’s trivia: Marvel Comics introduced the Black Panther in July 1966, three months before Bobby Seale and Huey Newton formed the Black Panther Party. Nevertheless, in February 1972, Marvel decided to rechristen its superhero as the Black Leopard in Fantastic Four No. 119 to prevent any confusion over possible ties to the controversial group involved in several police shootings and murders of its own members. It apparently wasn’t a popular change. By October 1972, Wakanda’s favorite son was once again known as Black Panther in Daredevil No. 92.