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People watching the Olympics on television may have noted something unusual - Russia is banned from the games because of a doping scandal, but Russian athletes are competing, just not under their national flag. So Russia is there, just not there. In 2021, the wider story of Olympic doping is about the same. It's in plain sight and yet quiet. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: There's a joke circulating at these Olympics - when has there ever been so much talk about positive tests and not have it be about performance-enhancing drugs? Yes, the coronavirus shoved doping to the side, or at least did until American swimmer Ryan Murphy finished second to Russian Evgeny Rylov in the men's 200-meter backstroke.
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RYAN MURPHY: I don't know if it was 100% clean, and that's because of things that have happened over the past.
GOLDMAN: Murphy's doping suspicion could have been based on a number of things over the past - in 2016, the revelation that Russia had been running a state-sponsored doping system, which Russia denies; also in 2016, a widespread drug testing failure, not just in Russia, before the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Travis Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, says the failure happened in 10 sports considered high risk for doping, including swimming.
TRAVIS TYGART: But in those 10 high-risk sports alone, there were 1,913 athletes who had no tests in the months leading into the Rio Olympic Games.
GOLDMAN: Tygart notes most doping happens before a big event like the Olympics, when banned drugs aid in training. Pre-Tokyo, there was another failure because of the pandemic - a global reduction in drug testing in 2020 and the first part of this year; in other words, plenty of reasons for athletes like Ryan Murphy to be suspicious. In that post-race press conference last week, Murphy said he was voicing general concerns about doping and not directly accusing Rylov, who was sitting next to him and who spoke through an interpreter.
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EVGENY RYLOV: (Through interpreter) I have always been for clean competition. So from my - bottom of my heart, I'm for clean sports.
GOLDMAN: He may be, but the fact is, his country is being punished for a third straight Olympics for being not clean, and "punished," critics say, should be in quotation marks. Russian athletes, again, are technically competing as neutrals, this time for the Russian Olympic Committee, ROC. They can't fly their flag or hear their anthem when they win gold. So they found a stirring alternative.
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GOLDMAN: The International Olympic Committee OK'd the use of Tchaikovsky's "Piano Concerto No. I," and it's getting some play. As of Wednesday morning in Tokyo, the ROC had won 13 gold medals and was third in the overall standings. ROC winners received congratulatory tweets from President Vladimir Putin. And in response to renewed suspicions about Russia, the official ROC Twitter account posted this - (reading) the old barrel organ started the song about Russian doping again; English-language propaganda oozing verbal sweat in the Tokyo heat, through the mouths of athletes offended by defeats.
Travis Tygart says the bravado isn't surprising.
TYGART: It obviously shows what a joke the, quote-unquote, "ban" really has been.
GOLDMAN: Tygart says Russia, with its power and money, is too big for the IOC to enforce meaningful punishment, not against individual athletes but against Russian leadership, which Tygart says should be transparent and publish drug test results to start to regain trust. Short of that, Russian and Olympic leaders seem ready to ride out the Russian ban. It's scheduled to end in late 2022, meaning next February's Winter Games will be yet another Olympics of neutrality and, most likely, suspicion.
Tom Goldman, NPR News, Tokyo.
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