The Summer Olympics in Rio are fewer than two weeks away, and there’s no shortage of marquee athletes poised to captivate and inspire: U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps, with 18 gold medals, competing in his fifth Olympics; the world’s fastest man and four-time gold medalist Usain Bolt of Jamaica, running in what he says is his last Olympics; the unbeatable 4-foot-9-inch U.S. gymnast Simone Biles, three time all-around world champion.
There’s another athlete with an intriguing story line: Darya Klishina, a 25-year-old Russian long jumper whose finishes at recent track and field world championships were 10th (2015, Beijing), 7th (2013, Moscow) and 7th (2011, Daegu, South Korea). She’s Russia’s only track and field athlete at Rio. She’ll be allowed to compete because she’s untainted by the unseemly doping scandal that turned Mother Russia into the pariah of international sports.
The International Olympic Committee tiptoed around the uproar Sunday, opting not to ban the entire Russian delegation from Rio and instead leaving it up to each Olympic sport’s governing federation to decide whether to allow Russians in its sport to compete. Former World Anti-Doping Agency president Dick Pound called the decision a “cop-out.” It flings the crisis onto the laps of sports federations that now have a shrinking window of time to vet each Russian athlete’s eligibility and decide whether to ban him or her.
Some of those sports bodies have begun taking action — seven Russian swimmers are out, while three Russian archers and the country’s eight tennis players are in. Russia’s track team already had been banned by track and field’s governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), a ruling upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the final word on international sports disputes. Klishina will compete because she showed the IAAF she’s clean when it comes to doping and that she trained somewhere other than Russia — requisites that Russian track athletes had to meet to avoid the ban.
The disquieting thing about the Russian doping scandal has been its scope and duration. Independent investigator Richard McLaren, appointed by the World Anti-Doping Agency, uncovered a state-run Russian doping program that spanned four years and 28 summer and winter Olympic sports. Russia’s intelligence agency took part in the cheating, as did the Kremlin’s sports ministry. At Sochi, steroids were mixed into Chivas for men, vermouth for women. Dirty urine samples were swapped for clean ones through a mouse hole between doping lab offices. It was classic Soviet-style skulduggery, and it reflected Moscow’s anything-goes mind-set — seen not just in sports, but in the country’s approach to its own elections, its treatment of civil society and its relations with other countries.
The pervasiveness of cheating makes Klishina an interesting subplot in Rio. Her jumps will be the product of hard work and DNA, not steroid-and-vermouth pick-me-ups. She should be an Olympic feel-good story for Russians — instead, some of her countrymen have turned on her. On social media, she’s been denounced as a traitor, and one pro-Kremlin journalist even likened her to Soviet soldiers who collaborated with Nazis during World War II. The fact that she lives and trains in the U.S. probably doesn’t help her image among Russians.
Still, imagine the message she’ll send to Russians and Russian leaders if she medals. Even if she doesn’t, we’ll be cheering on Klishina, if only because she symbolizes what Olympic sport can be — competitive, driven … and on the level.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE