On June 17th 2016, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) announced it would uphold a ban on the participation of all Russian track and field athletes under the Russian flag to the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics. One of the cited reasons was “The deep-seated culture of tolerance (or worse) for doping that led to RusAF [Russian Athletics Federation] being suspended in the first place appears not to have changed materially to date.” The International Olympic Committee (IOC) backed the ban stating it “fully respects” the decision. The punishment is, however, far from fair. (Featured Image © Wikimedia Commons)
The announcement prompted the prominent Russian television pundit and propagandist Dmitry Kiselev to compare the adopted method with the Nazi practice of taking innocent prisoners and shooting them for the conduct of others. While any reductio ad Hitlerum tends towards the melodramatic, the gist of mister Kiselev’s argument is correct. The Russian athletes are being collectively punished.
Any form of sanctioning for which a group is held responsible for the behaviour of an individual is disproportionate and fundamentally unfair.
Collective punishment is a form of retaliation whereby an entire group or category of people is punished based on the behaviour of a part of this group, without regards for individual group members. Frequently the punished individuals have no control over the actions, whether unlawful, riskful or considered normal, that led to the punishment. Any form of sanctioning for which a group is held responsible for the behaviour of an individual is disproportionate and fundamentally unfair.
It would be fairly easy to discredit collective punishment through historical examples. The method has been used for various purposes by totalitarian and collectivist regimes throughout history, from decimation in the Roman Army to the mass deportations of Jews, Chechens and Crimean Tatars in the 20th century. Even the Bible advocates collective punishment, with God sending a flood and commanding the utter destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah to wipe all sinners from the face of the earth. Not to mention how a woman’s bite of an apple led to the punishment of womankind for eternity.
Modern day examples of collective punishment better illustrate the issue with fairness and proportionality of collective punishment. Past Israeli actions towards Palestinians, especially in Gaza, have been criticized by the International Committee of the Red Cross for collectively punishing “the whole of Gaza’s civilian population for acts for which they bear no responsibility.”
The bad practice that is collective punishment can also be found closer to home.
But the bad practice that is collective punishment can also be found closer to home, albeit in less overt forms. In Belgium, men are prohibited from donating useable blood if they ever had sex with another man. The relevant law implements EU Directive 2002/98/EC, which identifies homosexual men as a high risk group, and determines an increased risk of HIV spread sufficient to bar all homosexual men from donating. Again the behaviour of some, however riskful, leads to the collective punishment of many. Viewed in this light, the line between treating or punishing people collectively and outright discrimination becomes blurry.
“Responsibility can only be individual”, said Russian president Vladimir Putin in reaction to the ban of the Russian athletic team. “Collective responsibility cannot be placed on all athletes.” Sanctimonious as these words might sound coming from a world leader who isn’t famous for his high regard of individual and human rights, they are correct. An individual belonging to a group should never be held responsible for the punishable actions of fellow group members. It should be assumed that every individual, whether a Roman soldier, Palestinian in Gaza, Belgian homosexual or Russian track athlete, is a rational being, responsible only for actions that are their own. These individuals are innocent until proven guilty, and cannot be guilty by association.
Responsibility can only be individual.
Therefore, the IAAF should revoke its participation ban for Russian track and field athletes, and review the fair play of all athletes equally without prejudice or discrimination. After all, article 4 of the Fundamental Principles of Olympism states that “the practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit.”