Pigs will fly before we see an Olympics without doping. Fantastic as that sounds, it's practically a guarantee.
Let's be clear: The Olympics, and all big-time sports for that matter, were never really "clean." But with the establishment of anti-doping agencies worldwide, there was at least the hope they would be "cleaner." Yet even that modest aspiration got tossed out the window Thursday, when the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) decided to halve what would have been an already lenient four-year proposed ban on the serial-doping Russian Federation.
"So they can't fly their flag or sing the anthem at the Games for another two years?" said Travis Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. "Big deal."
Competitors who got caught cheating at the Games in ancient Greece had their likeness carved into stones placed on the pathway to the Olympic Stadium. Apparently, though, shaming folks doesn't carry the sting it once did. The Russians got caught running the biggest state-sponsored doping operation in the history of the planet in 2016, and despite being busted twice since, never really shut it down. And why would they, given their disciplinary history?
The first time the International Olympic Committee caught on, it ordered the Russians to keep their flag, anthem and junket-loving officials — but not necessarily their athletes — out of the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang. This is the kind of impression that made: Yet another Russian anti-doping lab got busted soon after — for tampering with the very data that was supposed to prove things had changed.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) responded this time around with a proposed four-year ban, though just like the earlier one, it was more symbolic than stinging, basically another "in-name-only" punishment. That, even though the court essentially concluded Russia was guilty on all counts.
So the nation will be barred from formally entering teams at the rescheduled Tokyo Games next summer and the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing, as well as several other high-profile sporting events for the next two years. But it will send athletes to all those competitions, and softening the measures put in place for Pyeongchang, those athletes will wear Russia's red, white and blue uniforms with "Russia" pasted on the jersey so long as it also displays the words "Neutral Athlete" or "Neutral Team" with the same prominence.
Worse still, the original CAS decision forced individual Russian athletes to prove they'd steered clear of the state-sponsored doping operation. Now, the burden falls on WADA to prove they took part. Small wonder, then, that The Associated Press story about the reaction back there was headlined: "Russia claims victory with loopholes in Olympic sanctions."
"The full extent of (the Russian doping program) still hasn't been revealed because of their coverup," Tygart, the USADA chief, said. "And yet, the maximum sanction they get is to be rebranded as neutral athletes from Russia. It makes no sense.
"It also sends a very powerful message to others that, 'Hey, if you want to win, this is the new rules of the game.' You put in place a state-sponsored system, allow your athletes to go, and worst case is if you do get caught," he concluded, "you just cover it up as best you can."
The conflicts of interest at the top of the Olympic movement are so many and varied that there's little hope it will reform itself. The IOC, rich and fat off TV and licensing deals to which countries like Russia contribute plenty, lines the pockets of both WADA and CAS and is much less concerned about whether the Games are "clean" than whether they turn a profit.
Effectively, that leaves the task of calling out dirty athletes to the competitors themselves. But in a nice bit of serendipity, the IOC earlier this year amended its questionable Rule 50, which governs protests by athletes during the Games. As now worded, any protest, so long as it's peaceful, will essentially be allowed without punishment.
The IOC made the move in recognition of the increasingly activist tones being struck by athletes around the world in reaction to a growing social justice movement calling out racism and inequality. Chances are good, though, that many of the athletes disgusted by having to chase juiced-up competitors will use some of those newfound freedoms to protest their presence at the Games.
Thanks to the court's muddled ruling, at least the offenders will be easy to spot.
By JIM LITKE AP Sports Columnist