We are in a race to save democracy

Published by The i paper (2nd August, 2021)

On Thursday, I flipped on the television before heading to bed. People in helmets were lined up at the start of a weird, bumpy racetrack on what looked like kids’ bikes with tiny wheels. Then the trap opened, six contenders hurtled down a steep incline and flew – often literally – around to the finishing line. I was hooked by the enthralling mix of daring, skill, speed and strategy – and so stayed up to watch all of the races. When my wife said the next morning that Britain had won gold and silver in the  BMX, she was surprised when I expressed such delight for Beth Shriever and Kye Whyte.

This is the joy of the Olympic Games: the discovery of strange minority sports and development of instant armchair expertise in their stars. It was lovely to watch Shriever chatting to her family after the heats, then discover that she had relied on crowdfunding and part-time work in schools to travel to contests. And it was great to hear Whyte’s pride in his Peckham roots.

There also seemed genuine warmth between competitors in the way he grinned at the winner when coming second in a heat, then later a defeated rival held up a finger and pointed at Shriever to remind television viewers who was now the world No 1.

Things were less harmonious elsewhere in Tokyo. The American swimmer Ryan Murphy, after finishing second to a very rapid Russian called Evgeny Rylov in the 200m backstroke, said that the race was “probably not clean”. He was backed by British bronze medallist Luke Greenbank, who spoke of frustration “as an athlete, having known that there is a state-sponsored doping programme going on”. Megan Kalmoe, a US rower, tweeted that it was left with a “nasty feeling” seeing a Russian crew take silver when they “shouldn’t even be here”. 

Kalmoe is right: it is farcical that Russian athletes are participating at these Games. Thanks to the courage of whistleblowers, the country was found guilty of a massive, state-sponsored doping programme involving more than 1,000 athletes in at least 30 sports.

They subverted anti-cheating efforts at two previous Olympics, including our own games in London. Many of their efforts were highly sophisticated, with one female athlete revealing how a regime of steroids and hormone injections sliced six seconds off her time in the 800m. Others were crude, such as swapping dirty urine samples for clean ones through a hole in the wall during the Sochi Winter Games.

Russia was, rightly, banned for four years in 2019. Yet inquiries into the scandal were hampered with hundreds of samples disappearing, outside experts kept at bay and key data deleted from laboratories.

The Kremlin’s tactics worked. The ban was shortened to two years on appeal and watered down to allow anyone not proved guilty to carry on competing. So now we witness 335 athletes in the red, white and blue of Russian colours at Tokyo – even if it is under the banner of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1 plays instead of the Russian national anthem when they win another gold. It is highly unlikely, to put it mildly, that all their medal-winners have clean records.

Murphy complained of “mental drain” at seeing his Russian rival win after breaking an Olympic record. It would, of course, be silly to suggest that only Russians cheat. One Nigerian has been sent home in disgrace from Tokyo. Go back to Rome in 1960 and a Danish cyclist died after taking amphetamines. The East German system was notorious. The infamous sprinter Ben Johnson was Canadian. Those gorgeous London Games were tarnished by dozens of disqualifications. There have been systematic doping efforts in British sport, leaving stains on the names of celebrated figures. Clouds of concern still hang heavy over many Olympic events, from cycling through to sprinting.

But there is a big difference when cheating in sport is backed by the state. The ROC complains about sore losers, claims Russia is being victimised and drops hints about conspiracy theories. “Here we go again – the same old song about Russian doping is played by the old music box. Someone is diligently turning the handle,” it tweeted.

Behind this stance lies the classic strategy of Vladimir Putin, honed in the KGB, that uses nationalism as a prop, dismisses troubling facts as propaganda, displays blatant disregard for collective values and blurs the truth. It has been seen from the start of his malign reign, whether in distorting his “democracy” or military incursions in the Crimea and Chechnya based on faked claims.

Many other nations now mimic Putin’s postmodern tactics. Bloodstained despots hold cosmetic elections to claim legitimacy while dominating media, manipulating state institutions, shutting down civil society and silencing rivals. Or note China’s reaction to the pandemic origins inquiry: fierce hostility to unfettered outside investigation along with determined efforts to distort the narrative. We hear similar lies from Beijing over its horrific network of concentration camps for Uighurs. These nations also seek to bend or undermine international organisations supposed to uphold rules-based systems based on universal ideals, as shown by the shambolic World Health Organisation in recent months.

Sport, as so often, serves as a metaphor for wider life. The Olympics have been perverted by money, power and realpolitik – just like so many other international bodies, from the football governing body through to the United Nations. This matters since we live at a time when democracy – the most powerful and successful political force of the past century – is being challenged by both the excesses of capitalism and the rising strength of rival creeds based on repression. 

The outrage of those defeated swimmers and rowers should reflect outrage over systematic subversion undermining a rules-based global order. Instead, we cheer on our new heroes but ignore the bigger picture staring us in the face of corrupted ideals and institutions.

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