The Olympic Games come just every two years. But what never ceases is the Olympic Movement, a philosophy based on striving to create a peaceful, better world. So when nations have historically run afoul of that mission, they have been subsequently banished from the games. Typically, the punishment has been levied on countries that started wars or violated human rights.
In 2018, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) took an unprecedented step: banning Russia from that year's Winter Olympic Games for its systemic policy of state-sponsored doping. It may not have been as grievous a crime against humanity as causing war. But it ran counter to the Olympic mission of creating a better world through fair, honest athletic competition.
Throughout history, rogue nations have been sidelined many times. Among the earliest and most famous to be denied were aggressors in World War I. In 1920, five countries—Austria, Hungary, Germany, Turkey and Bulgaria—were not invited to the games in Antwerp, Belgium. “The invitations used to come from the host city,” says Philip Barker, an executive committee member of the International Society of Olympic Historians. “They have changed that now, so the invitations come from the IOC.” In 1948, after World War II, Germany and Japan were similarly left out. “There was a lot of residual bad feeling, to put it mildly,” says Barker, who notes the animosity lasted in Britain for decades largely due to Japan’s treatment of prisoners of war.
In 1964, South Africa was prevented from participating in the Tokyo Games for its racist apartheid regime. That ban lasted nearly 30 years. Also during the 1960s, a rival to the Olympics emerged: The Games of the New Emerging Forces (GANEFO) were set up by Indonesia. North Korea participated as well, and the IOC banned athletes who participated in those contests. More recently, Afghanistan was barred from the 2000 Sydney games for the Taliban regime’s discrimination against women.
Russia has also sat out the Olympics voluntarily. In 1984, the then-Soviet Union led a boycott of the Los Angeles Olympic games, largely in response to the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow games because of Russian intervention in Afghanistan.
Violating IOC rules, not just international moral code, can also land a country in hot water. For the London 2012 games, and for part of Sochi 2014, India was banned for corruption in the Indian Olympic Association. And at the 2016 Rio games, Kuwait felt the burn when its government became involved in Olympic affairs. “Every national Olympic committee must be independent of the government,” says Barker, who also writes for InsideTheGames.biz. “The politics in these things is sometimes at a mundane level.”
But, he says, the Russian doping violations don’t fall into that category: “This is a very serious issue.” The IOC began to realize the depth of the issue prior to the 2016 games in Rio, where the Russians were subsequently banned from competing in weightlifting and track and field. But after an investigation found systemic manipulation, the country’s entire team, flag and national anthem has been barred. Individual athletes may appeal to the IOC to compete, but if accepted, they will compete neutrally, under the Olympic flag, and their national anthem will not be played.
IOC President Thomas Bach described the Russian doping system as “an unprecedented attack on the integrity of the Olympic Games and sport.” Looking forward, athletes who lost to Russians who violated the rules would be recognized, says Bach: “We will now look for opportunities to make up for the moments they have missed on the finish line or on the podium.”