The scarlet stain of Russian doping

Date posted: 11/11/15
The scarlet stain of Russian doping

It is difficult to overstate just what dark days these are for athletics specifically and sport as a whole. The revelations of Russia’s alleged state-sponsored doping programme are so devastating in their size, scope and premeditation that it is no exaggeration to say they are the worst sporting scandal in living memory.

Even the corruption surrounding FIFA and Sepp Blatter concern a governing body and a number of officials at the top of an organisation but the corruption here concerns a whole nation and the careful coordination of athletes, government, coaches and officials. This is cheating on a scale scarcely thought possible in the 21st Century.

The headlines of the 343 page report published by WADA and Dick Pound are damning:
- 1,417 test samples ‘maliciously’ destroyed shortly before inspection

- Intimidation of officials by undercover officers from the Russian secret service

- A second ‘phantom’ laboratory to cover-up otherwise positive tests

- 14 2012 Russian athletes implicated with 18 medals (8 gold)

- The only viable conclusion is that this is a ‘state sponsored’ doping program


How events will play out from here is likely to be just as uncomfortable for the IAAF and its new president Lord Coe. Vladimir Putin relies on overt projections of power and a strong anti-West rhetoric to galvanise political support across the large expanse of Russia. So, just as with the annexation of Crimea in 2014, don’t expect any public repentance.
Already the Russian counter-claims are coming in; spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told journalists that ‘as long as there is no evidence, it is difficult to consider the accusations, which appear rather unfounded’. One wonders how a forensically detailed 343 page report can be considered ‘no evidence’ but Russia has until the end of this week to formally respond. The IAAF may well find itself considering the ‘nuclear bomb’ sanction of suspending Russia from the Rio 2016 Olympics sooner than it would like. 
Part of what make these allegations so disturbing is that they attack the very foundations of sport. Just think for a moment of what sport is. It is an entirely ‘made up’ world. A place of play and rest from the rigours of the world. There is no ‘real world’ reason why a footballer can’t pick up the ball with his hands other than along the line someone somewhere decided that it was ‘against the rules’ (and the person who did pick the ball up would have to start a new game called rugby!). Similarly if you ask the question why is the 400m race only 400m long, or why is a discuss 1kg in weight for women, you might as well ask - why are we running around an oval track and throwing a round disc anyway? 
That’s why people get so touchy about sport being politicised, because it feels like the carefully guarded pristine make-believe arena of sport has been contaminated by the grubby fingers of the ‘real world’. That is why this scandal feels different to others. It is not just that a person has doped, or even that a sports team were all involved in doping, but here ‘the world’ seems to have twisted and distorted sport for its own ends leaving the dirty stains for all to see. 
But before we become too self-righteous we should recognise that this story is all too familiar. It is the story of what the Bible calls sin. A story that plays out in the chapters of every persons life. Sin has no absolute power but only the power to twist and distort. It is a perversion of the good, a muddying of the clean, a manipulation of the truth. And, as in this case with the IAAF and Russia, where sin leaves its marks we find ourselves asking - will we ever recover, can the stain ever be removed?
Over two and a half millennia ago, the prophet Isaiah spoke the words “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18). He was pointing to the only hope for an end to sin and its effects fulfilled in God’s Son Jesus Christ. 
If there is any hope for a way back for athletics it will require much reasoning together and a hard look at the failings. If there is a way back for Russia into the sports community it will require an honest acknowledgement of their sins and not just a propaganda war. Finally though, as we all process our shock and outrage we would do well to remember that there is never a hopeless situation, that God can take even the most scarlet stains and make them white as snow.
Pete Nicholas
Christians in Sport