Just as we settled in for a few days of Olympic competition to take a mental break from the daily spin of both presidential campaigns and their challenged candidates, we get hit again with Olympic controversy and cheating scandals.
By now, many Americans have considered the claims of Donald Trump as he hammers away at what he characterizes as a “rigged system” both in the election process and in Washington itself.
So it was silly of me to dare to think that I could simply turn away from the moral vacuum of the presidential dogfight and escape into the athletic world of watching the best of the best compete in the Games of the XXXI Olympiad in picturesque Rio de Janeiro.
Now I submit that the Olympic Games and controversy are two constructs that always seem to come together. For me it’s difficult to enjoy the gymnastics competition every four years because judging in the past has had issues of being, well, rigged in some form or fashion. With this year’s dominance of America’s women gymnasts, the judging has not been as issue. Having said that, for me, I more fully enjoy Olympic events with a tangible target or finishing line that determines the gold, silver and bronze medals.
So this year, gymnastics judging gets a pass and will not give the Rio games a black eye.
This time around it’s the Russians who represent the “dark cloud” of controversy over the 17-day event.
Russia is being accused of a state-sponsored doping program, reminiscent of the East German scandal in the 1976 games in Montreal. And its first victims were the world’s swimmers competing in Rio’s Olympic Aquatic Stadium.
As I watched that first Sunday’s 100m preliminary breaststroke heat live and listened to the commentators talk about the Russians getting their substance abusers reinstated, I had the same feeling of disgust as when contemplating Donald Trump’s proclamations of the many “rigged” systems in the American experience.
In that heat, I learned the background story of the first alleged Russian doper allowed to compete in Rio. Yulia Efimova is Russia’s 100m Breaststroke specialist and a two-time illegal substance abuser. She won a last-minute appeal to compete Sunday after being banned from this year’s Olympic competition and swam her first heat to a chorus of boos from a crowd that gets what her competition represents.
And if you are not up to speed on Efimova, she was caught doping the first time in October of 2013 and was suspended for 16 months for using the banned anabolic steroid substance DHEA. Earlier this year she failed another drug test for the banned substance meldonium, but was let off the hook last month on a technicality over how long it takes for the substance to exit the body.
Of the 389 Russian athletes scheduled to compete, the total cleared to compete in Rio was only 279.
Fortunately, America’s 19-year-old Lilly King took the gold, but in doing so was very vocal about her objections to Efimova being allowed back in the Rio competition at the last minute. Others swimmers followed King’s lead and are speaking out about the widespread doping scandal, much to the chagrin of IOC officials.
But for the Russians, their Olympic cheating is only the tip of the iceberg of an even bigger scandal.
They have now been caught red-handed for allegedly doping their athletes with disabilities.
And that is about as low as a country can get; using athletes with disabilities to win at all costs.
For their efforts, the International Paralympic Committee just banned Russia from their 2016 Games for their alleged violations. Committee President Phillip Craven said that Russia “had catastrophically failed its para-athletes and their medals-over-morals mentality disgusts me.”
It would have been appropriate to have heard that same assessment from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Rio. But of course, we didn’t.
In a further embarrassment to the IOC, the Paralympic Committee made it clear that their priority was to ensure a fair and level playing field for all of their athletes.
Now that is downright refreshing. And you have to hand it to the good men and women working with these athletes to get it right: something the IOC has repeatedly failed to do for decades.
Herein lies a lesson for all of us.
I remember a time growing up when the rules mattered. I remember from my early Christian training and my journey on the road to my Eagle Scout award that honor, character, and integrity counted for something. I remember a time when one got shunned for cheating!
Sadly, we’re learning that the IOC for decades has cared little about these basic values central to great competition. The IOC’s unwritten rule for the world’s athletes of don’t ask, don’t tell and don’t comment about those who dope is now being exposed and must no longer be the rule.
And we can thank a clean, innocent, 19-year-old gold medalist from Evansville, IN, for breaking the code of silence and possibly starting a process of transparency which will hopefully restore some character and integrity back into Olympic competition. Only time will tell if IOC officials will really get what those values are really all about.