It’s meaningless, and a red herring in the argument, to talk about ‘clean’ Russian athletes, when the system that was supposed to distinguish whether or not they were ‘clean’ was corrupted
Callum Murray
Callum Murray is editor of Sportcal Insight and editorial director of Sportcal. He focuses on the work of the IOC and of the international federations.
Doping: the collective responsibility fallacy
30th November 2017, 10:42

The Council of the International Ice Hockey Federation is the latest in a line of organisations and individuals to use the ‘collective responsibility’ argument against imposing a blanket ban on Russian athletes competing in PyeongChang next year.

In a statement issued this week, it said: “We oppose the use of collective punishment in the case of Russian athletes. Although we recognize the need to confront doping in sport, Olympic participation should not be used to sanction the many for the actions of the few.”

In other words, it’s unfair to make ‘clean’ Russian athletes suffer - take collective responsibility - for the actions of the minority who were doping.

As, the IIHF Council shows, it’s not only Russians who are making this argument. Here’s Martin Otcenas, the Slovak biathlete who competed at the 2014 winter Olympics in Sochi: “I am for fair Games and rules that are equal for everyone. I do not see the reason to punish clean athletes who never violated any doping rules. If someone cheated, then they should be punished. But not the whole team and definitely not the whole country. If we ban the country, then we have to look for similar cases in other countries. Nobody chooses the country where they were born.”

Such commentators insist on the right of ‘clean’ athletes to compete, and Otcenas justifiably points out that other countries should be similarly held to account.


For an unknown period... we have had no way of knowing whether any given Russian athlete is, or was, ‘clean’ or not

Of course, no one wants to punish those who were not doping, but this argument ignores the reality at the heart of the IOC’s dilemma. This is that, for an unknown period (which arguably continues, given the recent ruling by the World Anti-Doping Agency that RUSADA, the Russian anti-doping agency, still does not comply with the WADA code), we have had no way of knowing whether any given Russian athlete is, or was, ‘clean’ or not.

The McLaren Report, commissioned by WADA, alleged that over 1,000 athletes competing in summer, winter and Paralympic sports (including non-Olympic sports) were involved in, or benefited from, manipulations to conceal positive tests between 2011 and 2015.

In other words, it’s meaningless, and a red herring in the argument, to talk about ‘clean’ Russian athletes, when the system that was supposed to distinguish whether or not they were ‘clean’ was corrupted.

The argument becomes more complicated when the shortcomings of the WADA system and its application in other countries (even when the system is supposed to be ‘working’) are taken into account.

For example, UK Anti-Doping controversially this month ended a long-running investigation over a mystery medical package delivered to Bradley Wiggins, the Tour de France-winning UK cyclist, saying that there would be no charges in the case.

It had been alleged that the package contained a banned substance, but ultimately no decisive evidence could be found, thanks to a lack of accurate medical records held by British Cycling.

The conclusion was unsatisfactory for all concerned, not least Wiggins, who said in a statement: “This period of time has been a living hell for me and my family, full of innuendo and speculation. At times it has felt nothing less than a malicious witch hunt…

“To say I am disappointed by some of the comments made by UKAD this morning is an understatement. No evidence exists to prove a case against me and in all other circumstances this would be an unqualified finding of innocence.”


The system failed. Either it failed Wiggins, if he is innocent; or it failed clean athletes if he is guilty

The system failed. Either it failed Wiggins, if he is innocent; or it failed clean athletes if he is guilty. It could be argued that his is an isolated case and that there is no suggestion of systematic and deliberate sabotage of the entire UK anti-doping system.

Conversely, in Russia, according to the McLaren Report, at least 1,000 athletes were involved in systematic doping manipulation and cover-ups – and that’s just the ones we know about.

Nevertheless, incidents such as the Wiggins one feed the sense of injustice felt by Russian athletes and officials, and should, for sure, form part of the discussion.

But, under present circumstances (including the ‘non-compliance’ of both RUSADA and the Moscow anti-doping laboratory), to conflate the concept of a ‘clean’ athlete in Russia with that of a ‘clean’ athlete elsewhere is to commit what the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle identified as a ‘category mistake’.

A ’category mistake’ can be defined as presenting a thing that belongs in a particular category as if it belongs in a different category.


In practice, what we mean by ‘clean’ athletes is those who have not been sanctioned for an anti-doping doping violation, given that we can never know for certain whether they are genuinely doping-free, or have simply succeeded in cheating the system  

In practice, what we mean by ‘clean’ athletes is those who have not been sanctioned for an anti-doping doping violation, given that we can never know for certain whether they are genuinely doping-free, or have simply succeeded in cheating the system. So, in this case, the category mistake is presenting a ‘clean’ Russian athlete as if he or she was subject to the same anti-doping system that operates in most of the rest of the world.

In Russia, a ‘clean’ athlete is one who has not been identified as doping under an allegedly catastrophically and deliberately corrupted and compromised anti-doping system. This places the athlete in a different category from a ‘clean’ athlete elsewhere, who has not been sanctioned under a much more rigorous (albeit still undoubtedly flawed) system.

This is not, by the way, meant to be taken as an argument either for or against banning Russian athletes from competing in PyeongChang. In this highly-politicised debate, it’s simply a plea not to allow spurious logic to influence the decision.

So, what should the IOC’s executive board take into account when it sits down at its meeting in Lausanne next week to consider whether to allow Russian athletes to compete in PyeongChang? Should the whole team be banned, or should it go? And if so, should its athletes compete as neutrals, without the benefit of their national flag being flown or their national anthem sung – a suggestion that has incensed Russian officials?

What the discussion should be about is:

• knowing that the system was subverted in Russia

• knowing that this probably means that Russian athletes were more encouraged to dope than athletes in other countries, where the system was deemed to be working

• knowing that those same athletes are to some extent themselves victims of a system that was being manipulated by the state (if you believe the McLaren Report)

• and knowing that the system isn’t perfect anywhere else either

• what do you then do about Russians going to PyeongChang?

What it should not be about is fruitless hand-wringing over ‘clean’ athletes, when there’s no way of distinguishing them from those that doped: the collective responsibility fallacy.

Sportcal