By Guest Author 05/08/2016

By Prof Ian Culpan, Director of the New Zealand Centre for Olympic Studies, University of Canterbury.

The recent scandal over the Russian doping situation and the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) subsequent decision regarding Russian athletes’ participation in the Olympic Games has created widespread interest, not only from those interested and/or committed to sport, but from the wider global community.

An ethical dilemma

A green, gold and blue coloured design, featuring three people joining hands in a circular formation, sits above the words "Rio 2016", written in a stylistic font. The Olympic rings are placed underneath.All concerned waited with baited breath for the decision which, one way or other, would demonstrate the ‘intestinal fortitude’ and resolve by the IOC to confront the issue and demonstrate determined and forthright leadership. The IOC have had the opportunity to take the ‘moral high ground’. The question continues to circulate; did the IOC demonstrate the strong ethical leadership that was expected of them?

In facing such an ethical dilemma the IOC was confronted with a number of considerations that needed careful analysis. Firstly, the Richard McLaren, Independent Person WADA Investigation of Sochi Allegations (The Report) seems to contain irrefutable evidence that the Moscow Laboratory operated within a State-controlled failsafe systematic doping operation that enabled ‘doped’ Russian athletes to compete at the Sochi Games with impunity. This systematic doping was not restricted to the Sochi Winter Olympians. It extended to a large section of high performance athletes in the Russian sports system and clearly involved those intending to compete at Rio.

In being confronted with this evidence the IOC was clearly forced to act.

The International Olympic Committee  decided to allow some Russian athletes to compete. Was it ethically right? Credit: Wikimedia / NEI.
The International Olympic Committee decided to allow some Russian athletes to compete. Was it ethically right? Credit: Wikimedia / NEI.

What do the ‘rules’ say?

A second critical determinant that would guide the IOC’s deliberations would have been other key documents. Such documents would have included the rules, policies, and procedures as specified in the Olympic Charter (the IOC Rule book), the World Anti-Doping Code (WADA); and the IOC’s Ethics Commission Code of Ethics.

These documents, along with advice from sport lawyers and ethical philosophers, one could reasonably assume that these sources of information would have been thoroughly analysed. An analysis of such documentation gives a ‘muddied’ insight into the IOC’s decision. In the first instance, the IOC would probably have discussed the needed ethical decision in light of a deontological position – that is, what is ethically right or wrong according to their laws, rules, regulations, philosophy, principles, policies and practices.

Determining whether the IOC rules and policies etc. have been breached, one would speculate that the decision would be straight forward. Furthermore, one could justifiably assume that responsibility for determining this would rest with the IOC. However, the documentation, identified above, has conflicting and confusing messages.

For instance, the Olympic Charter states that the IOC is the supreme authority on all things ‘Olympic’. Furthermore, it states that any person or organisation belonging to the Olympic Movement is bound by the provisions of the Olympic Charter. The same Charter states that the one of the missions and roles of the IOC is to “protect clean athletes’” and that the Olympic Games brings together athletes selected by their National Olympic Committees, (NOCs), whose entries have been accepted by the IOC. It also states on the other hand that the NOC’s must adopt and implement the World Ant-Doping Code. Further on the Olympic Charter states that one of the roles of the International Federations (IF), within the Olympic Movement, is to “establish and enforce, in accordance with the Olympic spirit, the rules concerning the practice of their respective sports…”.

Who is responsible?

International Olympic CommitteeWithin these statements clear dilemmas emerge. The dilemma emerges, not as to whether the laws, rules, regulations, policies etc of the IOC have been breached, as it seems they clearly have, but rather who is responsible for adjudicating and sanctioning breaches on such matters. On the one hand, the IOC claims supreme authority, but on the other, it allocates responsibility for certain decisions on such matters to the NOC’s and the IF’s. Here lies the problem with the IOC’s decision. In this instance, they have passed responsibility to the IF. In doing so, we return to the expectation of all those interested in this situation. That expectation being the need for the IOC to demonstrate strong ethical leadership. Clearly the question remains as to whether this expectation has been met.

In making the decision arguably the IOC appears to have abandoned the expected responsible leadership. From a personal position it would seem that there is legitimate reasons for the decision being passed to the IF’s, but on the other hand, was this the ‘right’ thing to do in light of their own rules, laws and policies and their claim for supreme authority? I think not.

What does the most good?

In the second instance, the IOC would probably have considered this doping scandal from what is called, in ethical decision making, ‘a teleological position.’ This requires any decision to consider the ‘common good’. That is, what is the most desirable decision that can lead to an outcome that promotes the greatest good and the least possible harm? Here the IOC would need to consider such ‘good’ or ‘harm’ with the athlete in mind but, equally importantly, the integrity and protection of its own brand and the spirit of sport across the globe. Such considerations would need to speculate on the effect such a decision would have on the educative, social, economic, political and ethical value of the Olympic Movement (including the Games) and sport per se.

This consideration has probably taken place within a rushed time frame and the luxury of due diligence compromised. Here the problem arises as to whether the IOC’s decision is for the ‘greater good’, particularly, the greater good for sport and minimising the harm to sport. By sport, I refer to all forms of sport, not just elite sport and hopefully would include its educative, social and moral value.

An equally relevant consideration, using this approach, would be to consider which course of action enhances the IOC’s virtuous standing in the global community and whether this enhancement protects its global brand. Clearly in working towards a ruling the IOC needed to determine whether the decision made conformed to the universal ethical principles and values that its philosophy of Olympism espouses. I leave the reader to adjudicate on this.

What do the Olympic Games represent?

The Olympic flame burns bright in Sochi, Russia, at the 2014 Winter Games. Flickr / american_rugbier
The Olympic flame burns bright at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Flickr / american_rugbier

A third consideration that the IOC may have entered into is focused on a position of authenticity where personal and collective beliefs of the decision makers would need to be considered. Here individual integrities and beliefs about what they stand for would be examined in light of the issue. Contesting answers to the dilemma would have contributed to the decision, by clearly articulating a position of virtue. That is, any decision would have to clearly demonstrate what of kind of organisation the IOC wanted to be? and furthermore what do IOC members want the Olympic Games to represent now and in the future? Such thinking has a strong futurist orientation and one that involves considerable speculation without the luxury of time.

Clearly, the consequentialism of the IOC’s decision is yet to be played out. The world awaits with interest, as this decision, in my analysis, has the potential to determine the future sustainability of the educative and social value of sport particularly if it is seen as a ‘valued human practice’ in education and community initiatives, the future perceptions of the Olympic Games and of course the ethical standing of the IOC.


Featured image: Flickr / Andre Kiwitz

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