Though no one will be pleased by it – except perhaps Russia – the International Olympic Committee showed on Sunday that it is occasionally capable of something other than cynical self-interest.

The easy thing to do would have been to expel the Russian team en masse from the Rio Games after the uncovering of a state-sponsored doping program and subsequent cover-ups. That move would have been cheered by most of the world. Instead, the IOC chose the much harder route – one of prudence.

Russia will not be banned. Rather, the onus will be passed on to individual Russian athletes to prove they are clean in order to compete.

With only 12 days remaining until the opening ceremonies, this shifts attention to dozens of individual sporting federations that must now determine which Russians will be admitted.

Essentially, only those competitors with a spotless record of PED will be considered for inclusion. Every one of them who has ever tested positive – even those who have already served their suspensions – is out.

Going forward, all Russian athletes will face a more rigorous out-of-competition testing program than their international colleagues.

Anyone “implicated” in last week’s McLaren Report – competitor, coach or bureaucrat – will likewise be banned from Rio. It is notable that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s name is included in that document.

Thus, no individual is being barred by virtue of association. Instead, the head of this criminal syndicate – the Russian state – is forced to grovel for admission to the global party.

By putting Russia in Olympic detention, the IOC avoids the issue of expulsion, which might easily have led down all sorts of twisting moral paths in future.

Notably, the solution is a tacit admission by the IOC that it is itself part of the problem. And more to the point, that the problem is largely insoluble.

“The IOC EB [executive board] reaffirms its serious concerns about the obvious deficiencies in the fight against doping,” the board said in a release. “The IOC thus emphasizes again its call to WADA [the World Anti-Doping Agency] to fully review their anti-doping system.”

We’ve heard this line before, but rarely in such morose, defeated terms. This is the IOC acknowledging that the cheaters are a step ahead of the testers, and probably always will be. Their game of laboratory whack-a-mole continues endlessly.

So what now?

First, the real punishment – international derision.

Under Mr. Putin, Russia operates its athletic setup as an aggressive extension of its foreign policy. Sport is arguably the only way this declining power can flex its muscles without bombing someone.

On that basis, it’s been a disaster. The doping program was set up after the failures of the Russian team at Vancouver 2010.

All the gains made four years later in Sochi have been rendered meaningless by recent exposés. We’re left assuming they cheated at all points in between.

For the foreseeable future, all of their successes are suspect. It doesn’t really matter if Russia wins gold medals any more. They’ve turned the concept of winning inside out. The more they manage it, the worse they’ll be mocked.

For the Putin regime – one that survives on swagger and a permanent sense of petty grievance – that is the cruellest cut. They have turned themselves into figures of fun.

Everyone else gets to enjoy a nice, smug glow at Russia’s expense.

“The [IOC] decision regarding Russian participation and the confusing mess left in its wake is a significant blow to the rights of clean athletes,” Travis Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency said in a statement on Sunday. His sentiments captured popular opinion.

Well, it’s not that confusing. If you’ve tested positive, you’re out. If you haven’t, you’re okay. How difficult can that be to figure out?

(It took the International Tennis Federation about an hour. That’s how long after the IOC’s decision was announced they declared the seven members of the Russian tennis contingent clear to compete.)

I’m also not sure how admitting people who have never failed a drug test can be called a “significant blow to clean athletes.”

We know the system was corrupt. We do not know precisely whom it corrupted. The USADA and like-minded organizations want to hold the sentencing hearing before working out the details of the trial. They’d recognize that sort of thing in Russia.

It is hard to imagine a scenario in which the USADA (or any other group) would advocate this sort of mob justice for its own athletes. It smacks of triumphalism.

But this is their moment. You cannot deny them the chance to seem righteously aggrieved (also, very Russian).

One suspects that, on an emotional level, letting Russia off the hook is the solution everyone really wanted. Now they get to rend their garments in the public square.

Athletes from every sizable nation have been caught doping at the Olympics. Most of them have twisted themselves up like pretzels trying to wriggle out of it.

This puts all that shameful posturing in the rearview. We can all be cleansed of our PED sins by bathing in the waters of Russia’s cartoonish villainy.

What gets lost in the high-pitched back-and-forthing is that this thing isn’t getting any better. Despite years of promises, many millions of dollars spent and now-constant attention, the dopers keep working out new schemes. Every time a few are caught, we can feel pretty sure many more are getting away with it.

That tension is chipping away at the Olympic mystique. On Sunday, the IOC did what seems right under the circumstances – acknowledge that its own war on drugs has become a rearguard action.

The objective is no longer victory. All they hope to do is limit their losses and triage the wounded.

TORONTO — The Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Jul. 24, 2016 10:30PM EDT
Last updated Sunday, Jul. 24, 2016 11:25PM EDT