Watching the Rio Opening Ceremonies

August 4, 2016

I love watching the Opening Ceremonies at the Olympic Games. It’s a spectacle like few others in sport.

Athletes from countries large and small parade into the main stadium, perma-smiles etched on their faces, many skipping and hopping their way around the track, powered by pride and purpose.

It’s impossible not to get caught up in the excitement and anticipation, because we know there are extraordinary moments to follow – moments of fist-pumping triumph, moments of crushing defeat, and moments of compassion and sportsmanship that lift the human spirit.

It’s the reason we do what we do at the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport. And what we do is we help to make sport better. For example, working as partners in the fight against doping, we team up with national and multi-sport organizations to deliver the Canadian Anti-Doping Program (CADP), one of the most sophisticated and robust systems of its kind in the world.

By testing Canadian athletes, both in and out of competition on a year round basis, we contribute to creating a level playing field for all clean athletes to compete and excel. In addition, we recognize that the lead-up to the Olympics and Paralympics represents a high-risk period for doping, so we intensify our testing efforts. In the six-month lead-up window, we use our intelligence gathering systems to ensure that every athlete who will be going to the Games is tested at least once at the right time for the right drug.  

The Opening Ceremonies in Rio carry special significance for another reason. They punctuate a painful period of unprecedented turmoil and controversy. Two intensive, independent investigations ordered by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) have exposed a shocking, government-sponsored system in Russian sport to protect doping cheaters from getting caught.

With compelling evidence of a corrupt system and scores of Russian athletes presumed guilty of doping violations, WADA and many of the world’s leading anti-doping agencies (including the CCES) called on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to seize the opportunity to protect the interests of clean athletes everywhere. Our recommendations to the IOC fairly balanced the need to hold Russian sport accountable for their collective actions while ensuring at the same time that any clean Russian athlete had the right to compete in Rio.

In what was roundly criticized as a deplorable failure of leadership, merely weeks out from the start of the Rio Games, the IOC bobbled the baton, handing responsibility instead to the various international sport federations to determine the eligibility of Russian athletes. At the same time the IOC did not establish any significant sanction for Russian sport. 

This lack of decisive leadership means athletes will compete in Rio less certain than ever that they are competing on a level playing field. And spectators will watch wanting to believe the unbelievable, but with the shadow of doping suspicions clouding their belief.

All of the controversy and clatter of the past few months have distracted us from what should be the real story of any Olympic or Paralympic Games – the drive and determination of our treasured athletes, and the dedicated support from coaches and sport specialists.

At the same time, all of this turmoil does serve to underline the inseparable connection between values-based sport and high performance sport. Because, as the expression goes, “you can’t have one without the other.” Without values underpinning high performance sport we are left with sport without morals, which may be entertaining to some but it is not true sport.

There’s no doubt that the doping storyline will remain a prominent feature of these Games: will we see any Russian athletes test positive for banned substances? What kind of reaction will Russian podium performances receive? What changes, if any, will follow the Olympic and Paralympic Games to prevent a repeat of the three-ring circus that preceded Rio 2016?

In spite of all that, let’s try to remind ourselves that, at their best, the Olympic and Paralympic Games represent all that is good and honest about high-level sport. Sport driven by the values of fairness, excellence, inclusion and fun, and the True Sport Principles is sport at its best.  As I watch the Opening Ceremonies and take in as many of the events as I can find time for, I’ll be looking for those moments that remind us, once again, about the power of good sport to bring out the best in humanity.

And while I continue to harbour grave concerns about the commitment to clean sport by some key sport leaders overwhelmingly influenced by political and commercial interests, I hope that clean competition takes centre stage in Rio and that, for a little while at least, we’re focused on what sport is really supposed to be about.