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Wholesale Ban on Russian Paralympians an Injustice

Several weeks ago, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) took the decision to suspend the Russian Paralympic Committee for failure to comply with its anti-doping policy. Russia maintained hope that an appeal to the Court of Arbitration of Sports (CAS) could lift the suspension. On August 23rd, however, the CAS denied the appeal, which effectively ensured that no Russian Paralympians could compete in Rio Summer Games.

IPC president Sir Philip Craven based the decision to suspend the Russian team on the same damning World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) report that his colleagues at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had studied. Yet while the IOC allowed Russia to compete at Rio 2016, the IPC appeared to take an entirely different decision with the exact same evidence from Richard McLaren’s landmark report.

Given that the IOC’s decision was deemed incompetent and politically motivated by the mainstream press, it came as no surprise that the IPC took a harsher stance. The IOC allowed the various sporting federations to decide on the fate of their Russian athletes and a three-person IOC panel eventually decided that 271 Russian athletes could compete in the Summer Games in Rio. Only the IAAF imposed a ban on Russian Track and Field athletes.

According to an IPC press release, the decision to ban Russia was based on a primary difference that seemingly separated them from their IOC counterpart.

As an autonomous organisation with a different governance structure to the IOC, the IPC’s decision was based on the fact that there is one sole IPC member in Russia responsible for both winter and summer Para sport,” Craven stated. “We found that member – the Russian Paralympic Committee – not to be fulfilling its obligations in regards to the IPC Anti-Doping Code and World Anti-Doping Code and therefore decided to take the best course of action for the Paralympic Movement.”

The IPC concluded in their own investigations that 27 samples relating to eight Paralympic sports had been tampered with. Some samples appeared to have been swapped during the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi. Those 27 samples were the basis for the IPC’s decision to ban an entire nation from a quadrennial event.

The decision was meet with a contrast of responses. Western pundits praised the committee’s difficult decision as a victory for the anti-doping effort – a harsh yet necessary verdict for the greater good of sports integrity. Yet while the ban presents a seemingly simple fix to a scandalous issue, it is nothing more than a superficial solution with grave consequences for countless innocent athletes.

Russia planned to send 267 competitors across 18 sports to the Rio Paralympics scheduled for September 7-18. At the 2012 Summer Paralympic Games in London, Russia took home 102 medals, including 36 gold for a second place finish in the medal standings. In Sochi two years later, Russia won 80 medals (30 gold) to cement their position as one of the most dominant Paralympic nations.

Over the past four years, countless athletes incurred sponsorships and financial support to achieve their dream to compete in the Paralympics. For many, the end of their athletic dreams could mean the end of a stream of somewhat steady income. With an ongoing economic recession in Russia, the consequences may be far reaching for the athletes involved.

53-year-old Valentina Zhagot was a member of the Soviet national team in 1980s but a tragic car accident in 2002 left her with minimal vision. Instead of succumbing to her sad unfortunate fate, Zhagot took up Paralympic rowing five years later and made the team for the Beijing Paralympics in 2008. She has never tested positive for any performance enhancing substances and was set to compete in Rio with an invigorated team. Countless other inspirational stories like Zhagot’s will be lost because of corruption beyond their control.

The first time I got to a swimming pool, I could not even walk and was carried there,” Ani Palyan, a Paralympic swimmer, said. “The news about a blanket ban on the entire Russian Paralympic team shocked me.”

The IPC likely hoped that their harsh decision-making would serve as a catalyst for change in Russia. However, their naivety is irresponsible, as they attempted to send a message to a powerful government by punishing innocent athletes with disabilities. Instead of yielding the preferred result, the IPC incited anger within the Russian government. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree to stop funding WADA as a direct result of the ban on 271 Russian athletes. The head of the Public Chamber of Russia also suggested that the nation hold alternative Paralympic Games so that their athletes could compete all the same.

It is difficult for athletes to understand how they are to blame for the gross mismanagement of anti-doping regulations that is alleged in the damning WADA report. While 27 samples have proven to be contaminated, an entire country’s worth of disabled athletes will suffer for crimes committed by officials, regulators, and government employees. Even the CAS statement admits that it did not consider the “natural justice rights or personality rights” of individual Russian athletes when mulling over the decision.

What began as an attempt to facilitate wide scale change and erode of the deep-set corruption within Russian sports became nothing more than a symbolic reminder of the War on Drugs.

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