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MacKenna On Monday: Russia Punished While Doping In Other Countries Is Ignored

A number of years back, a group of buddies decided it was time to do the great east-west United States adventure. Starting out in New York, and before reaching the dry counties of Arkansas, they shacked up in Tennessee one night and needed a break from the bar scene.

The cinema was their way out.

The Dark Knight Rises had just been released so they took their seats, although their abiding memory had nothing to do with what came up on the screen. Instead, a man a few rows in front was so inspired by the action that he took to his feet and started cheering on the hero. A few minutes later, others in the audience joined him in booing the terrorist villain Bane.

Nobody other than the out-of-towners in the auditorium saw this as any way untoward.

What was telling was what inspired these people. For, while at times there’s a crossover, by and large the most popular films tend not to be the best. That’s because the latter need a complexity that is either beyond the reach of many, or certainly beyond the interest of many who see the movies as a way of switching off and shutting down for a little while.

Given that, the most obvious way to entertain while not demanding a whole lot of attention or thought is the good-versus-bad model. From Star Wars and Superman in the 1970s to Indiana Jones and Rambo in the 1980s, from Independence Day and Jurassic Park in the 1990s to Transformers and Spider-Man in the 2000s, there’s a basic formula to keep the majority of people happy. Indeed by now, we’ve reached paint-by-numbers Marvel anti-cinema with mass appeal. As Martin Scorsese put it lately, nothing is at risk in their formula.

Sport is just one more form of entertainment for more and more of the populous, but being a business it also needs to keep those customers happy. Therefore it has seen what works.

Then it has copied it.

The bad guy is key to not only capturing attention but in highlighting the hero. And we’ve been given Russia to stare at in fear and cheer as they are forced to lose out. The dangerous commies. The reds with their lack of morals. The beasts from the east.

This stuff sells itself.

* * *

A policeman walks into a bank, only to see two masked figures holding up the teller. “Hey, you two, stop what you’re at,” he says stunned, asking to see their passports.


“Russian?” he pronounces, looking up at one, as he slaps on the cuffs and tells him, “You’re in trouble mate and are going down for a long time”. Then he sees the other passport.

“Not Russian?”

“No,” comes the gruff reply.

“Apologies, carry on sir.”

Last year, a whistleblower came to me with some seriously credible evidence.

It involved a high-profile British athlete and what they claimed was evidence of them doping going back a decade to their nascent days as they began to climb the ladder within their sport. It was damning to the point he’d met with members of this athlete’s team who admitted as much. Conscience won out and they finally put a call into UK Anti-Doping.

Two women from the agency came to meet the whistleblower and rented a room for 90 minutes in a hotel near his home to converse. It went beyond that though, reaching three hours such was the level of damning detail. The women were enthralled and took the evidence back with them. From on high in UKAD though the whistleblower got a call, with the opening gambit from the person being that they’d deny the call ever took place.

World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) President, Craig Reedie, addresses the assembly at the opening of the 2018 edition of the WADA Annual Symposium on March 21, 2018 in Lausanne.  The World Anti-Doping Agency holds its annual symposium, where Russia's long record of cheating is likely to loom large. / AFP PHOTO / Fabrice COFFRINI        (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)

“In terms of UKAD I guess that the people I met were probably good people, with the best interests,” said the whistleblower to me. “But the further this goes up the chain to the people who have to present to politicians, that all changes.”

Nothing ever came of this.

Libel law and threats prevent us from naming the athlete, but this isn’t about them. It’s bigger than that for this is about a system that accommodates based on nationality.

Contacting UKAD, they said they couldn’t and wouldn’t talk about individual cases but these are the people thrown off by Mo Farah’s doorbell and who have had to wait for Team Sky to blow themselves up as they for years sat idly by and ignored all logic, reason and evidence.

Yet UKAD are a state-agency, so what exactly does this constitute?

Russia we treat differently though, and their state efforts have seen them thrown in front of the bus so we can pretend that sport is well again. The latest four-year ban was laughable as it came with Wada head Craig Reedie engaging in what some will say is hypocrisy, only that is not a strong enough description of what is actually mass manipulation of this sphere.MOSCOW, RUSSIA - DECEMBER 14, 2019: Activists of the Young Guard of the United Russia Party during a farewell event for neutrality and independence of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) by the offices of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC). WADA has banned Russia from major sporting events for 4 years for doping. Gavriil Grigorov/TASS (Photo by Gavriil GrigorovTASS via Getty Images)

“For too long, Russian doping has detracted from clean sport,” he proudly stated.

The unmentioned message was that others doping isn’t detracting from that same sport.

Remember the cheesy montages from Rocky IV for instance where Balboa righted overturned horse carriages and chopped wood as prep for his bout with Ivan Drago, the Soviet seen with needles hanging from his ripped arms in a state-of-the-art lab. It was the most cynical adaptation of west against east, good against bad, clean against cheat.

We prevailed though therefore we liked it.

This isn’t to defend what Russia did and what they’ve done to clean up their act, but the entire point – or at least the stated point of WADA, as in reality, it acts as a public relations effort for the big business and bigger profits of sport – is to make things fairer. But how is singling out one group while ignoring the evidence elsewhere in any way fair? How exactly does that attitude, that selective action and that widespread inaction improve our sport?

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - DECEMBER 14, 2019: Activists of the Young Guard of the United Russia Party during a farewell event for neutrality and independence of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) by the offices of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC). WADA has banned Russia from major sporting events for 4 years for doping. Gavriil Grigorov/TASS (Photo by Gavriil GrigorovTASS via Getty Images)
It’s so easy to contrast and show up their true and ugly colours. For instance, if they’ve had no problem with the way the United Kingdom go about their business via a state agency, then they’ve had no problem with the way Spain as a nation have brushed away the filth.

Russia will now miss out on qualification for the next World Cup, yet the Spanish not only missed a ban but were and are celebrated as greats in their soccer triumphs. This despite the testimony of Dr Eufemiano Fuentes, blood bags he said belonged to – among others – soccer players, and a Spanish court refusing to have that blood tested to find the truth.

What about Jamaica too? In the midst of their sprinting revolution, Renee Anne Shirley, a member of their anti-doping body literally risked life and limb to blow the whistle and tell us all that their athletes were being given a pass and a blind eye was turned. WADA did too.

What about Kenya and Ethiopia and their on-going successes? Russia’s system of passing urine through a wall may have been lacking in complex bad-guy methodology but in these places, we’ve tales of an even less advanced method to avoid being caught. Several people have said that when testers show up to training camps in those countries, that athletes have on occasion actually just run away, usually into wooded areas where they see out the storm.

General view of the New National Stadium, the main stadium of Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, after the construction completion ceremony in Tokyo, Japan December 15, 2019.  (Photo by Alessandro Di Ciommo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
And what about the United States, the Batman to Russia’s Bane in all of this?

If you are to punish nations behind doping, then what about nations that merely privatise their doping as that’s the way their country works. In America, Travis Tygart and USADA have managed to completely miss Balco, then fail to stop Lance Armstrong, and most recently come up short around Alberto Salazar and Nike. Instead, it took the FBI to get involved Tygart and USADA couldn’t assemble the pieces of an easy jigsaw they were given.

In the case of Nike, we’ve known for years that they were aware of what Salazar was doing around forcing medication of pregnant women, using his own son as a guinea pig, and drugging a child, all in the name of getting results. So why are they different from Russia? Why aren’t they and anyone associated with them booted from all sports? That’s rhetorical sadly.

Firstly, there’s money.

Secondly, there’s the game to be played around giving the people what they want which is a good guy to fawn over in simplistic drama. This is proven and this is working.

BERLIN, GERMANY - AUGUST 11:  Dina Asher-Smith of Great Britain celebrates winning gold in the Women's 200 metres final during day five of the 24th European Athletics Championships at Olympiastadion on August 11, 2018 in Berlin, Germany. This event forms part of the first multi-sport European Championships.  (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
It’s why last week Dina Asher-Smith, a British athlete kitted out in Nike gear, gave a predictable interview to Sky News. She was asked about Russia’s ban and noted that their suspension was vital in keeping clean sport. She was then asked about Salazar and the company she sells and merely said she was focused on winning and this wasn’t an issue.

This is what’s given a pass.

This is the bullshit we are dealing with.

If you’ve ever sat and watched Russia Today and got the feeling this is state propaganda, that’s normal as it’s what we are taught to think. But step back and watch media closer to home and listen to their words and analyse their messages and it’s more of the same. Doping is no different for while Russia are at it, they are only alone in the punishment.

Perhaps an unforeseen consequence of this will be Russian media, their agencies and their hacking turning all their investigative powers towards targeting doping by high-profile western teams and athletes. But even when they did that before, evidence was ignored.

Instead, we believe the lies and presume reality will re-align itself with these lies.

When the film I Am Legend initially came out to test audiences, they didn’t like the actual ending so the directors re-assembled the cast and changed it to suit the tastes of the masses. The people had to be given what they wanted as for that they were willing to pay.

In sport, they are getting what they as well thanks to Russia.

That’s the bottom line.

And this is always about the bottom line.

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Author: Ewan MacKenna

One of the country's top sports journalists, and a recipient of Irish Sports Journalist of the Year.