Symptom of a deeper Olympic malaise?

Russia has been given the ultimate Olympic red card, forced to sit out the 2018 Winter Games. The humiliating punishment comes just four years after their athletes won more medals than any other country in Sochi – a feat aided by systematic Russian doping and manipulation of drug-testing samples.

The fact that the lumbering International Olympic Committee finally decided to take action has been hailed in the West as a gutsy if overdue move, and a coming-of-age moment for the global anti-doping movement.

Russians, however, see it as part of the West’s longstanding war on their culture, history, and sport. “They are always trying to put us down in everything,” wrote Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova in a Facebook post, adding it to a long list of grievances including “world war, the collapse of the Soviet Union and sanctions.”  

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The question now is: How does the Olympic movement heal this rift with one of its superstars and restore integrity to sport? Scholars say the key lies in returning to its foundational ethical principles, including “mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity, and fair play.” Though the use of performance-enhancing drugs appears to remain widespread and a threat to fair play, that may be more a symptom of the broader degradation of Olympic ideals rather than the chief plague.

“The Olympic Games are supposed to be a celebration of Olympism, like Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Christ. And so clearly Christmas has lost its way in the promotion of the birth of Christ – it’s become a corporate enterprise now. And clearly the Olympic Games have lost their way. They, too, have become a corporate enterprise,” says Ian Culpan, professor of physical education and Olympism education at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. “[Sport] has lost its educative and social value at the elite level.”

RESOLVING RUSSIA

Pierre de Coubertin, the founding father of the modern Olympics, envisioned them not so much as a display case for the world’s greatest athletic achievement but an avenue for developing mankind’s character.

“The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part; the important thing in Life is not triumph, but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well,” he said. “To spread these principles is to build up a strong and more valiant and,…

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