After Russia Doping Ban, a South African Speaks Up for the Innocent

Even before global antidoping leaders confirmed this week that Russia would be banished from top-level international sport for four years, the athletes’ committee they consulted was expressing frustration that the punishment did not go far enough.

That athletes’ group, led by Beckie Scott of Canada, an Olympic gold medalist in cross-country skiing, released a statement critical of the penalties on Sunday, the night before they were announced in Lausanne, Switzerland. The statement said anything short of a blanket ban of all Russian athletes would be an insufficient response to Russia’s repeated violations of antidoping rules, and would only encourage further malfeasance.

But one other athlete whom the World Anti-Doping Agency consulted extensively — a former swimmer from South Africa — disagreed. And when the world’s senior antidoping executives lined up on Monday to announce their decision, they said the views of the swimmer, Penny Heyns, had played a significant role.

Heyns, 45, has served on the committee charged with overseeing the Russian doping investigation since January, when Scott resigned over the agency’s handling of the Russia scandal. In recent weeks, Heyns made a passionate defense of the importance of protecting innocent young Russian athletes, said Jonathan Taylor, the British lawyer who led the panel.

In her first interview since the announcement, Heyns told The New York Times that she had no regrets about the punishment, which bans Russia and its officials from major international sports but is likely to allow hundreds of Russian athletes to continue competing if they can prove they are clean. Heyns said she had made up her mind at a recent swimming event in Budapest, where teenage Russian swimmers showed great promise.

“They were 10 or 11 when all of this was going down; they are not part of the system,” said Heyns, who won the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke events at the 1996 Olympics, becoming South Africa’s first post-Apartheid era gold medalist. “They’re totally innocent. We needed to take a decision that’s looking after whole world.”

Heyns said the panel had discussed a blanket ban, which is something she remembered from her childhood, as South Africa was barred from international sports for decades because of its apartheid policies. She said that the penalty was appropriate for the time, but that it had also “destroyed a lot of dreams” for young athletes.

Heyns argued that the mission of the doping authorities was to protect clean athletes everywhere. “It’s our duty to ensure all clean athletes have the right to compete, including those from Russia who can honestly prove their innocence,” she said.

The organization announced the ban for Russia on Monday after concluding that the country’s authorities had manipulated or deleted thousands of files containing athlete antidoping data. That action makes it unlikely that scores of potential drug cheats who benefited from the state-run cheating program may never be punished. Officials said that any athletes who were linked to the doping scheme or the subsequent cover-up would be barred from international sports, and most likely be stripped of any medals.

But hundreds of Russians are likely to be cleared to participate as part of a neutral team at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, where the Russian flag, anthem and uniform will be outlawed. Heyns said that ban, which critics have labeled more symbolic than severe, was important.

“Russia does not exist,” she said. “Looking at the way things have gone thus far, the manipulation and everything, I think what’s more important is the word ‘Russia’ is gone.”

Heyns said it was unfair to single out Russian athletes for special attention, even though the scale of the cheating program and the subsequent cover-up are among the biggest scandals in sports history.

One criticism is that the punishments do not go as far those issued by track and field’s governing body in 2015, penalties that remain in place today. Track’s leaders have banished Russia from all events — local, regional and international — and have instituted a strict vetting process to allow individual athletes to participate under the rubric “Authorized Neutral Athlete.”

Another criticism is that the ban announced Monday does not include high-profile competitions that are not world championships. The Russian team will take part in next summer’s European soccer championships, for example, and Saint Petersburg will remain one of the 12 host cities. Russia also is expected to retain the hosting rights to the 2021 Champions League final, the biggest match in club soccer.

Heyns said the relevance of regional events did not factor into her opposition to a blanket ban.

“To be honest,” Heyns said, “my focus was so much on the Olympic level that I didn’t actually consider the continental events.”

Heyns asked whether the very best athletes would even want to compete in events where Russia was excluded, suggesting that winning without having faced major rivals would be unsatisfactory to many elite competitors.

“Any athlete who is honestly a true competitor — you want to compete against the best of the best,” she said. “I’d be curious to know how some of the top athletes would feel about that.”

She also disputed the level of athlete opposition. She said there were few, if any, objections to the proposed sanctions last week during a conference call organized by the International Olympic Committee that included athlete representatives from several sports.

“Nobody made a statement like, ‘Why is there not a blanket ban?’” Heyns said. “If all these athletes were so upset, why didn’t it come up?”

The I.O.C. provides half of the antidoping agency’s funding, and its leader, Thomas Bach, has publicly opposed a blanket ban for Russia, even though the country has seemingly doubled down on its bad behavior. Bach, a German who won a gold medal in fencing at the 1976 Olympics, has said he favors “individual justice” over collective punishment.

Heyns said that she had not spoken to Scott, the outgoing chairwoman of the antidoping organization’s athletes’ committee, about their divergent views. She said, however, that Scott and the others critical of the ban should play a part in the process that will clear individual Russian athletes one by one.

“They should sit around the table and evaluate evidence these athletes bring in,” Heyns said. “If our hearts are truly for the protection of clean athletes, and if these athletes give evidence and it’s compelling, then they are clean.”