The International Olympic Committee has decided that there are Russians, but not Russia. And this is the first step toward a very good thing indeed.
By ejecting Russia as an entity from the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, for playing with the drug results of their athletes, the IOC has entered a thicket of political horror that can only end cleanly one way, and one way only.
By eliminating the entire concept of nations as the overarching way to keep score.
This won’t happen, of course – the entire financial structure of international sport is based on nations footing the cost, for athletes, for venues, for politicians in blazers with national badges on the pocket yearning to be on the take. Indeed, nobody interested in the Olympics can imagine it being done any other way, going back 121 years to the start of the modern Olympics, so this is the pipiest of pipe dreams.
But there is no guarantee that this ban won’t be negotiated down to try to keep an unsteady peace that ultimately will stand or fall on outside geopolitical issues. In other words, while Russians can compete under the dubious name "Olympic Athletes From Russia" and stand to honor the Olympic anthem, Russia can’t...until Russia can again.
Therein lies the issue that nearly undid the Games in 1980 and 1984, and could undo them again. Russia has been among the most brazen of Olympic drug farms for decades and defied anyone to do anything about it, and this tentative attempt by the IOC to strike back reminds us of the successive boycotts that nearly undid the entire concept of nation-based sport. That time, the issues had nothing to do with sport and everything to do with outside international tensions, but in case you hadn’t noticed, things are kind of tense these days.
By 1988, everyone backed down because the Olympics didn’t make sense without the entire global community involved, and that’s how this will be resolved as well. The Russians will tidy up their procedures, the IOC will pretend to be satisfied, and then business will resume as usual.
And the nations that pay for, benefit from, and still cheapen the entire concept will go on as they always have. And because ending that cycle is the most efficacious way to ennoble the enterprise, we will go through this again, and again, and again – because there really is no such thing as sports without politics, and just as grimly, there is often no such thing as politics without sport.