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Russian Doping Scandal: How Does Football Fit In?

(Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)

Across Russia, athletes from a wide variety of sports are on edge as they wait to find out the fate of Russian competitors at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. Earlier this week, the World Anti-Doping Agency, or WADA, announced that an independent investigatory commission had found egregious and far-reaching doping violations in Russia over the span of several years, going so far as to say the 2012 Olympics in London had been “sabotaged” by Russian doping.

The commission called Russia’s athletic doping problem a“systemic” and even “state-sponsored” cheating program. Dick Pound, former WADA president and head of the commission, called it a “deeply rooted culture of cheating” that spanned across various different sports.

The Russian response to WADA’s commission has been mixed to say the least. At first, outrage. The Kremlin was quick to decry the accusations as “groundless,” claiming the commission constitutes little more than a poorly substantiated smear campaign. Then, in a seeming change of tack, Vladimir Putin publicly called for a domestic investigation into the charges of systemic cheating. If at first defiant, the gravity of WADA’s charges—and the potential scope of their influence—have convinced Russia that they must respond with equal gravitas.

Themselves not taking these findings lightly, the WADA commission recommended Russia be immediately and sweepingly banned from international athletic competitions, with the focus particularly sharp on the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Russia may find out as early as Friday whether or not Russian athletes and teams will be allowed to compete in Brazil.

Although the Olympics are an especially high-profile event, there’s another major competition also taking place in the summer of 2016, and one for which Russia has already qualified: the 2016 UEFA Championships in France.

Unlike baseball, American football, or perhaps especially, Olympic events like power lifting and cycling, soccer is not a sport that easily lends itself to successful doping. The use of anabolic steroids or other performance-enhance drugs is not unheard of in international football, but it’s not by any means perceived to be a widespread problem. Still, the WADA report raises questions about Russia’s participation in Euro 2016.

On the one hand, the World Anti-Doping Agency is very explicit in its mission that it wants to root out cheating, while protecting athletes who have not themselves participated in the illicit use of performance enhancing drugs. In some sense, their call to ban Russia from international sporting competitions across the board flies in the face of this mission—but not for no reason.

That the WADA commission found doping in Russia to be “systemic” to the point of a “state-sponsored” saboteur of international competitions is the supposed justification for such a drastic, event-wide ban. And yet, if such a program is deemed to be sufficient reason for banning Russian athletes from Rio 2016 wholesale, then why exonerate the Russian football team and allow them to participate in Euro 2016?

The answer might be twofold. On the one hand, it has to do with the division between the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and football’s global governing body, FIFA. On the other, it has to do with a distinction between the actions of individuals, and the actions of nations.

The former is a bit easier to parse. In terms of the Olympics, it will be the IAAF, not the International Olympics Committee, and by no means FIFA, who decides whether or not Russia will be banned. The IOC has already stated that they have time yet to alter the event’s logistics should Russia be banned, and will comply with the IAAF’s recommendation, meaning all eyes will be on the IAAF’s decision. Although the Olympics contain football competitions for both men and women, FIFA is not directly involved in their organization.

For football fans, in terms of the Olympic decision, it’s something of a moot point. Russia was not planning to compete in either the Men’s or the Women’s Football tournaments at the 2016 Olympics in any case.

The distinction between the actions of individuals, and between a culture of “state-sponsored” doping, of cheating, is both trickier to pick apart, and more important for Russian football. Should the IAAF ban Russia from the 2016 Olympics wholesale, then the organization will be condemning many athletes who themselves didn’t participate in doping—precisely what they’ve said they want to avoid. But in order to punish a sweeping and systemic problem, they may decide it’s necessary to hand down a sweeping and systematic punishment, banning athletes from all sports from the 2016 Olympics.

That, however, would still not answer the important question: why are swimmers with no history of doping being punished in a ban from the Olympics, while footballers, who may be equally innocent, are allowed to compete in the 2016 Euros in France? If it is a ban from international sporting competitions, should FIFA also take note of the IAAF’s decision and consider banning Russia from Euro 2016? If not, why is football exempt? If the logic behind a ban from the Olympics is that Russian athletics cannot be trusted wholesale, then shouldn’t it be extended to the football team as well?

If such extreme action is taking, then Euro 2016 should be on the table as well. If Russia’s culture of doping is both “systemic” and, in fact, “state-sponsored,” if it is so egregious—as the WADA commission claims—to warrant banning Russia from all international competitions, then Russia’s participation at Euro 2016 should be a part of the conversation. So far, it hasn’t been.

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