It seemed dramatic, didn't it, back in early December, when the International Olympic Committee declared in big, bold letters that the Russian Olympic Committee would be banned from the upcoming Pyeongchang Games? These Russians, you see, had engaged in a systematic, state-sponsored doping program, and therefore they would be punished. Except, of course, those who are clean.
Those who are clean. That announcement from the IOC's executive board came on Dec. 5. More than a month has gone by. Less than a month remains before the Opening Ceremonies in South Korea. And we have no idea, none, which Russian athletes the IOC considers clean or, frankly, how they'll determine that.
This is a mess, and nothing short of it, and it's not just about the Russians and whether they'll be able to represent - what, exactly, because their country's flag and anthem and uniforms have been barred from appearances in competition and on medal stands? I guess what we know is that the IOC has successfully banned clothing and music. Beyond that, nothing.
Probably should ask the IOC, then. Right? Because this is such a significant issue we should be able to get a straight answer. It affects not only what Russians participate in the Games, but potentially which athletes from other countries get to go as well. To provide the public with confidence that a fair Olympics is about to be staged, and to add credibility to its own decision regarding the Russians' actions leading up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, transparency is of the utmost importance.
"To protect the rights of the people involved," the IOC press office wrote in response to an inquiry, "the IOC cannot comment on any individual cases but will communicate the invitation list in due course."
Due course? The Olympics start four weeks from Friday. What is "due course?"
This entire affair has people in the Olympic community - people who are wondering what might happen to their athletes - as well as those in the anti-doping community - people who are wondering how, exactly, the IOC will determine which athletes are "clean" - in a full-on tizzy. They must put their trust in a four-member IOC-appointed committee, led by France's Valerie Fourneyron, who is experienced in this territory.
And yet Fourneyron's panel has not communicated how many cases it has reviewed, or will review, or how exactly they'll do it. What we know about a timeline: The IOC's deadline for all sport federations to have the names of athletes submitted and approved is Jan. 28. That's just more than two weeks from now. That's 12 days before Opening Ceremonies.
Moreover, the Court of Arbitration for Sport announced Wednesday that 42 Russians who had been found by the IOC's investigation to be guilty of doping violations before or during the 2014 Sochi Games - and thus had been banned from any future Olympics - had filed appeals. Those appeals will likely be heard during the week of Jan. 22, and that "it is expected that the CAS will issue a final decision for each case on or before 31 January 2018," according to a CAS statement.
Uh, right. Let's kick the can down the alley a little further.
Given all this, consider that the Russians sent a contingent of 232 athletes to their home games four years ago. Now, the Russians have been "banned." How many "Olympic Athletes from Russia," as the IOC is calling them, can we expect to show up anyway? One hundred, maybe 150? Even 200?
Possibly. No one really knows. No one can say. But it won't be zero.
Now, you might be of the mind that doping isn't cheating, and presuming guilt without due process is decidedly un-American, and that there were flaws in the IOC's decision-making in the first place, and that Russian athletes who can show they have not doped should be invited warmly. Fine.
But what's inarguable is that the current limbo affects not only the Russians, but athletes from almost every other country in a wide array of sports. That's true in a couple of ways.
First, depending on the sport, Olympic qualification can depend on an athlete's world ranking. Take skeleton. A male skeleton athlete must be ranked within the top 60 in the world, a woman in the top 45, to be considered for the Olympics. Follow a simple what-if: an athlete from, say, Canada sits 62nd in the world rankings headed into the final World Cup race before qualifications are set, which happens to be this weekend in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
This is hypothetical, but play along. Say there are five Russians sitting ahead of this particular Canadian in the world rankings. The Canadian doesn't - can't - know whether those Russians will be cleared by Fourneyron's committee, thus moving the Canadian into the top 60. So how does he approach the upcoming race? Aggressively, to try to move up the rankings? Or conservatively, to protect a spot he already has?
Complicating matters further: Some sports have quotas - based on a country's collective performance - that dictate how many athletes each nation can send in a particular endeavor. Many Russians, including those who have been banned by the IOC from these and future Games, are competing on their worldwide tours anyway - legally, because the IOC's ban pertains only to the Olympics.
So a problem arises: Russian athletes who might be prevented from participating in the Games could be earning spots that increase the Russian quota, and then "clean" athletes from Russia could fill those spots. But should the performance of Russian athletes who are going to be barred from Pyeongchang be used in determining how many Russian slots there are in a given sport and, by extension, have a role in keeping athletes from other countries out? Of course not.
These are the conversations that are happening within and among national Olympic committees and anti-doping agencies - and athletes - worldwide. This week, Canadian speed skater William Dutton tweeted that, despite the findings of the World Anti-Doping Agency and the IOC, among others, his sport's federation "is still using Russian skater's [sic] times in criteria for selecting @TeamCanada Olympic team. Is this what WADA fought for?"
There is widespread confusion. Back in December, the IOC was roundly lauded for what seemed, in the moment, like a sweeping, decisive action regarding the Russians. Now, with the Pyeongchang Olympics less than a month away, what we have is a lack of conversation, a lack of transparency, and athletes wondering exactly who they'll be competing against in South Korea. There will be Russians in these Olympics, that much is clear. How many, and who, is a mystery, and time is running short.