BY Tariq Panja
Even before global anti-doping leaders confirmed this week that Russia would be banished from top-level international sport for four years, the athletes’ committee they consulted was expressing frustration that the punishment did not go far enough.
That athletes’ group, led by Beckie Scott of Canada, an Olympic gold medalist in cross-country skiing, released a statement critical of the penalties Sunday, the night before they were announced in Lausanne, Switzerland. The statement said anything short of a blanket ban of all Russian athletes would be an insufficient response to Russia’s repeated violations of anti-doping rules, and would only encourage further malfeasance.
But one other athlete whom the World Anti-Doping Agency consulted extensively — a former swimmer from South Africa — disagreed. And when the world’s senior anti-doping executives lined up Monday to announce their decision, they said the views of the swimmer, Penny Heyns, had played a significant role.
Heyns, 45, has served on the committee charged with overseeing the Russian doping investigation since January, when Scott resigned over the agency’s handling of the Russia scandal. In recent weeks, Heyns made a passionate defense of the importance of protecting innocent young Russian athletes, said Jonathan Taylor, the British lawyer who led the panel.
In her first interview since the announcement, Heyns told The New York Times that she had no regrets about the punishment, which bans Russia and its officials from major international sports but is likely to allow hundreds of Russian athletes to continue competing if they can prove they are clean. Heyns said she had made up her mind at a recent swimming event in Budapest, where teenage Russian swimmers showed great promise.
“They were 10 or 11 when all of this was going down; they are not part of the system,” said Heyns, who won the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke events at the 1996 Olympics, becoming South Africa’s first post-Apartheid era gold medalist. “They’re totally innocent. We needed to take a decision that’s looking after whole world.”
Heyns said the panel had discussed a blanket ban, which is something she remembered from her childhood, as South Africa was barred from international sports for decades because of its apartheid policies. She said that the penalty was appropriate for the time, but that it had also “destroyed a lot of dreams” for young athletes.
Heyns argued that the mission of the doping authorities was to protect clean athletes everywhere. “It’s our duty to ensure all clean athletes have the right to compete, including those from Russia who can honestly prove their innocence,” she said.
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The organization announced the ban for Russia on Monday after concluding that the country’s authorities had manipulated or deleted thousands of files containing athlete anti-doping data. That action makes it unlikely that scores of potential drug cheats who benefited from the state-run cheating program may never be punished. Officials said that any athletes who were linked to the doping scheme or the subsequent cover-up would be barred from international sports, and most likely be stripped of any medals.
But hundreds of Russians are likely to be cleared to participate as part of a neutral team at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, where the Russian flag, anthem and uniform will be outlawed. Heyns said that ban, which critics have labeled more symbolic than severe, was important.
“Russia does not exist,” she said. “Looking at the way things have gone thus far, the manipulation and everything, I think what’s more important is the word ‘Russia’ is gone.”
Heyns said it was unfair to single out Russian athletes for special attention, even though the scale of the cheating program and the subsequent cover-up are among the biggest scandals in sports history.
One criticism is that the punishments do not go as far as those issued by track and field’s governing body in 2015, penalties that remain in place today. Track’s leaders have banished Russia from all events — local, regional and international — and have instituted a strict vetting process to allow individual athletes to participate under the rubric “Authorized Neutral Athlete.”