Where did 'OAR' really get us? IOC's intent again falls flat

The Olympic Athletes from Russia walked under a neutral flag during Sunday's closing ceremony in Pyeongchang. EPA Photo

It's all over but the lab analysis.

That is the edict of the International Olympic Committee, which would like to tie up this Russia affair with a clinical bow and move on.

The IOC's last-minute, melodramatic vote on whether Russia's flag and colors would appear at Sunday's closing ceremony became a focus of attention as the Winter Games wound down, as if that were the key issue of substance. Like a beneficent ringmaster, the IOC would bestow this blessing on Russia, making it a fully restored and costumed character under the big tent of the international circus.

That preordained scene was derailed by two doping cases involving Russian athletes during the Games that even the IOC could not ignore. The upshot is that the Russian Olympic Committee will remain suspended until all its athletes' drug-testing samples from Pyeongchang have been processed -- a matter of days or at most weeks. Of course, a certain number of them will likely be reopened and retested in a few years, and only then will the medal tally be final.

The discussion that preceded the IOC vote had to be heard to be believed. The Russian delegation was praised for smiling when it marched in opening ceremonies wearing "neutral" garb, revelers at the national party house were deemed to have behaved appropriately, and in a late-night rewriting session requested by the IOC leadership, the cases in Pyeongchang were described as "isolated" from the deeply entrenched culture of organized doping revealed over the past three-plus years by journalists and investigators.

Hours later, when the men's hockey players temporarily known as Olympic Athletes from Russia beat Germany in overtime on Sunday to win their first gold medal since 1992, they mocked the elders by purposefully drowning out the Olympic anthem with their own.

The real judgment day, such as it was, came back in December. That was when -- after a year of stalling and backtracking through the findings of the McLaren report -- the IOC created a process that ultimately enabled more than 160 Russian athletes to compete four years after their country's political, security and sporting bureaucracies collaborated to cover up doping and rig the results of the previous Winter Games.

The Russian team was depleted by vetting that kept 111 athletes off the IOC's invitation list for Pyeongchang. That process -- with criteria that includes evidence being used in ongoing investigations, and thus still not out on the table -- was challenged and upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

It was a sanction that was better than nothing but not nearly tough enough, given the lack of true progress, materially or attitudinally, since the wholesale fraud of Sochi 2014. The Russian Anti-Doping Agency is still not in compliance with international standards. Whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov is still being publicly maligned and threatened. The public posturing and denials about doping have not let up.

And despite having to fill out extra paperwork swearing to be good, a Russian curling bronze medalist and a Russian bobsledder tested positive for banned substances. The first was that pesky old meldonium and the second was another heart medication that could have been a substitute. The bobsledder had been photographed recently wearing a top that was part of the OAR team's "casual wear" line, bearing the words "I Don't Do Doping."

Talk is cheap. So are T-shirts. What's irretrievable and priceless are the career opportunities that athletes have lost for years now thanks to a broken antidoping system.

A $15 million fine imposed by the IOC on the Russian Olympic Committee last December was paid up five days ago in an obvious maneuver leading up to the closing ceremony decision, as if the country were a parking ticket scofflaw trying to keep a car from being impounded.

Russian athletes as a whole shrugged off the inconvenience of an altered logo that had little impact on the national ego.

"It doesn't really matter with the flag or without it," 2014 biathlon gold medalist Anton Shipulin said through a translator to a couple of reporters at a World Cup event in Italy last month, before he learned he would be among the athletes barred from Pyeongchang by the IOC. "Everybody clearly knows who we are. Everybody knows we will fight for the country, not for the white flag or any other symbol that we might have there."

The absences of some Russian stars like Shipulin contributed to a shutout in certain sports that likely would have been strongholds, like biathlon and men's long-track speedskating. But Russian fans traveled to support their team with the standard patriotic regalia and the nation still won gold in two of its flagship events, figure skating and men's hockey. Its athletes collected eight medals in cross-country skiing, one of the sports most deeply compromised by the evidence that emerged in McLaren's investigation.

The Olympic Acronym That Actually Meant Russia wound up with 17 medals, just two more than the tally that caused such consternation at Vancouver 2010. That poor showing eight years ago instigated the "Sochi Plan" to coordinate organized doping and testing sabotage, as Rodchenkov has spelled it out.

So many IOC members had left Pyeongchang by this weekend that the body made its quorum by the slimmest of margins. Two notable early departures were Great Britain's Adam Pengilly, compelled to leave the country by the IOC after an altercation with a security guard, and Canada's Richard Pound, the most senior IOC member, who departed disgruntled, of his own volition. Together, the men had constituted the most vocal challenge to the IOC's meandering approach to Russia.

Pengilly admitted he'd been in the wrong regarding the altercation, although actual video has yet to surface. The IOC's rapid response to the incident stood in contrast with its civil libertarian approach to other members implicated in far more serious issues. As for Pound, his colleagues have taken him to task in writing for using the words "old farts" in describing recent events, castigating him with country-club righteousness. It seems a waste of energy that could be devoted to bigger problems.

Those dust-ups will fade from memory now that the torch has been extinguished. OAR apparel will wind up on collectors' sites much like the old CCCP gear did after the fall of the Soviet Union. No matter how the sports establishment dresses itself up, the real question is whether anything underneath has changed since then.