A new frontier of the revived cold war with Russia, at least the sporting version of it, surfaced at the Sprint Center on Thursday afternoon.
That’s when U.S. Figure Skating president Sam Auxier took the bold step of advocating the ban of Russia from international competition in the wake of ongoing revelations of its vast, state-sponsored doping of athletes.
This might sound like a relatively minor matter. Or nothing unusual: Dog bites man.
As it happens, though, it was a virtually unprecedented stance for someone of his stature among so much caution and so many games of semantics that stop short of the necessary purge of a program that has lost all credibility.
Not that every country, including this one, doesn’t have such issues of its own.
But Russia’s nonsense has become so brazen as to be hidden in plain view, and anything less than a complete condemnation and rooting out of it enables it all to lurk.
So Auxier’s unexpectedly welcome words leapt out during an otherwise vanilla news conference to commence the senior competition, which began Thursday with the pairs and ladies short programs and continues through Sunday.
Asked if Russia should be allowed to continue to participate, or host, international competitions considering all it has been connected with, Auxier initially paused for a few seconds.
This is the place where leaders often look to hedge.
But then he said this:
“I don’t think they should be able to. I mean, it’s state-sponsored. It was … a huge program, well-coordinated, to cheat. And they should pay a pretty stiff penalty.
“And the only way that the (International Olympic Committee) and the (International Skating Union) maintain any level of integrity is to take a strong stand.”
Whether he intended to embrace this role or not, with those few words Auxier and the USFSA moved to the front lines — or at least moved the chains — in the ongoing battle of perception and wills.
The IOC, for instance, has tap-danced around this despite clear and compelling evidence of methodical cheating.
Last summer, it ultimately punted.
Amid calls for Russia to be banned from the Rio Games, IOC president Thomas Bach said those proven to be part of a “manipulation system” should be … but declined to take a bolder stance on Russia itself.
Instead, he turned that considerable matter of conscience over to the governing federations of each sport.
“This blanket ban of the Russian Olympic Committee has been called by some the ‘nuclear option’ and the innocent athletes would have to be considered as collateral damage,” Bach said at a news conference in Rio, later adding, “The cynical ‘collateral damage approach’ is not what the Olympic movement stands for.”
More than 100 were kept out of the competition, but nearly 300 competed.
(The International Paralympic Committee, incidentally, did exclude Russia entirely, with IPC president Sir Philip Craven condemning what he called a culture of “medals over morals.”)
No doubt cognizant of the implications of breaking from the party line with the Los Angeles 2024 Olympics bid at stake, the USOC essentially rubber-stamped the IOC view.
So the only true voices of authority calling for Russia to be banned from all international competition have come from national anti-doping agencies, including that of the U.S.
Even as the evidence has grown stronger.
Last month, the IOC announced it had launched disciplinary proceedings against 28 Russian athletes who competed in the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
The action evidently was spurred by a World Anti-Doping Association report that detailed systematic, wide-spread doping by Russia for years.
Auxier’s blunt proclamation comes with the knowledge that the IOC’s findings could have implications for U.S. Figure Skating – particularly for two-time U.S. champion Gracie Gold, who learned to skate in Springfield, Mo., and is a graduate of the University of Missouri High School online program.
Gold finished fourth in Sochi as Russia’s Adelina Sotnikova won gold.
The Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport reported that Sotnikova is among those being investigated.
If Sotnikova is stripped of her gold medal, South Korea’s Yuna Kim would ascend to the gold medal, Italy’s Carolina Kostner would be elevated to the silver … and Gold would be awarded the bronze.
During a conference call last week, Gold declined to speculate on any such scenario, instead stressing that she has known Sotnikova for years, even performed in shows with her, and still considers her “a sweetheart.”
And while it would be a hollow medal in some ways, even that aspect of it would further punctuate the point of the agony of defeat by a cheat.
Asked about the possibility, Auxier said, “It’s really kind of out of our control. It’s up to WADA and the people doing the analysis, and then the ISU will have to decide what type of penalty they will weigh against that given the evidence.”
He later added, “It’s important to us that the ISU take a strong stand against doping and making sure that our athletes, who are all clean, competed against athletes who are clean.
“So we are very focused on what the decision is and what steps the ISU will take, and (we) will exert whatever influence we’re able to.”
Now, it’s hard to know if all U.S. skaters are as clean as Auxier seems to assume.
But let’s not nitpick just now.
His strong words exerted an influence he’s able to — and that others haven’t.