23 Jun 2016

Too little, too late: What could have saved the face of Russian sport?

Maria Senchenko – Intern at Spreckley

Amid any international scandal, timely actions to win over public support are essential for crisis resolution.

With the recent news of the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) extending Russian track and field athletes’ competition ban before the Rio Olympics, it is fair to say that Russia’s attempts to win over public support failed.

Russia has been suspended from world athletics since November 2015, when the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) accused the Russian government of a state-sponsored cover-up of doping among its athletes. Russia’s response to these allegations was in tune with a generic “New Cold War” rhetoric, whereby the Ministry of Sport dismissed WADA’s statement as politicised slander.

However, there was an evident change of heart from Russian sports officials in May this year, as the IAAF’s council session discussing Russian membership in the Olympics was approaching. Denials and accusations were substituted by the classic PR crisis communications formula known as “foul up, ‘fess up and fix up.” Russia increased transparency and honesty with the press by acknowledging that “serious mistakes” were made and promised to reform social attitudes to doping in Russia. This was attempted by organising tours to Russian anti-doping labs and athletic facilities, as well as arranging interviews with athletes and anti-doping officers for the media.

Ultimately, the goal behind these tactics was to reform public perception around the world so that the suspension for Russian athletes would be lifted without public protest and media attacks. This was in fact a rather challenging task. Judging by historical evidence, doping allegations have been the norm in Russia and the Soviet Union for decades, with the recent violent clashes at Euro 2016 having only perpetuated the problem.

It seems that the late apologies and promises to reform the system did not exactly impress the IAAF. As a result of not addressing the crisis in a timely manner, Russia lost the chance to restore its reputation and secure the athletes’ participation in the Rio Olympics. Russia is now back on the offensive, claiming that banning clean Russian athletes from Rio breaches human rights. What could have prevented clean athletes from missing Rio, however, was the appropriate crisis management back in November, when the scandal escalated, rather than lacklustre attempts to apologise six months later!

The case of Sharapova using crisis communications following doping allegations is particularly representative of how one should respond: having delivered the news to the world’s media herself instead of denying claims, the Russian tennis star attracted sympathy and prevented contract breach with at least some of her sponsors.

It seems that with 65 countries boycotting the Moscow Olympics over the Soviet-Afghan War back in 1980, Russia should have learnt the importance of crisis communications. Nevertheless, relying on late and rather half-hearted apologies is a clear example that the country’s sports officials are not yet ready to fully embrace openness at the expense of their political standing.