It has been another remarkable day in what has already been a remarkable year in the world of sport. Russia, represented by the vociferously defensive Sports Minister Vitaly “your allegations are absurd” Mutko, resolutely put to the sword in a 100-page World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) report which pinned most of the blame on his shoulders and those of his deputy, Yuri Nagornykh.
In a direct response to a disappointing Russian performance at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, the Sports Ministry “directed, controlled and oversaw” a “unique” method of sample manipulation at Sochi 2014, it was claimed.
They utilised a “Disappearing Positive Methodology” in which they opened and then resealed supposedly tamper-proof bottles.
Claims stretched far beyond Sochi 2014 and winter climates, however. A total of 30 sports were implicated – including 20 of the 28 on the Summer Olympic programme – while huge question marks were raised over events ranging from the 2013 World Athletics and 2015 World Swimming Championships to the Summer Universiade in Kazan.
Paralympic sports were also the fourth highest grouping on a table showing these “disappearing positives”.
Amazingly, and quite brazenly, Russia are adjudged to have continued this programme even when WADA conducted their investigation last year.
All evidence is verifiable and can be cross-corroborated by multiple sources, the softly-spoken Report chair Richard McLaren insisted, his every word a slap in the face for indignant protestations of innocence. Most tellingly, this included using similar technology to re-open bottles, which produced identical scratch marks found on Russian samples.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has already criticised a “dangerous throwback to political interference in sport”, dismissing the allegations as an attempt to “make sport an instrument of geopolitical pressure and create a negative image of countries and nations”.
This is a classic Russian tactic, but it no longer holds water.
Even if some people do want to score a political point, they have done so in the old-fashioned way by producing evidence. A distracting political influence has been more obvious in the other direction, as the world’s largest nation uses its superpower status to influence sporting administrators desperate to avoid damage in a valuable market.
Russian athletes are the victims here, of course; they have been utterly at the whim of a ruthless and controlling state, and this has virtually nothing in common with the athlete-driven doping carried out by the likes of Lance Armstrong. But it is Russia’s international rivals who have missed out on thousands of medals because of it.
So is a complete Olympic ban from Rio 2016 now the only option?
“Given that the Russian Ministry of Sport orchestrated systematic cheating of Russian athletes to subvert the doping control process; and that, the evidence shows such subversion in 30 sports, including 20 Olympic summer sports and Paralympic sports, the presumption of innocence of athletes in these sports, and in all Russian sports, is seriously called into question,” said WADA in a statement pinging into our inboxes even before the report had been fully digested.
“Accordingly, WADA recommends to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) to consider, under their respective Charters, to decline entries, for Rio 2016, of all athletes submitted by the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) and the Russian Paralympic Committee. Furthermore, any exceptional entry of a Russian athlete should be considered by the IOC and IPC for participation under a neutral flag and in accordance with very strict criteria.”
Such a decision is not straightforward, but, after today’s revelations the presence of the Russian flag at Rio 2016 would give a clear sign that the Olympic Games is a place where cheating is only penalised when politically convenient.
The IOC added: “The findings of the report show a shocking and unprecedented attack on the integrity of sport and on the Olympic Games. Therefore, the IOC will not hesitate to take the toughest sanctions available against any individual or organisation implicated.
“In the immediate short term, the IOC Executive Board will convene in a telephone conference tomorrow to take its first decisions, which may include provisional measures and sanctions with regard to the Olympic Games Rio 2016.”
Yet it would be foolish to conclude that a suspension is now a done deal.
We have been here before, of course, with statements from the IOC. They offered their “full support” to the International Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF) decision to continue their Russian suspension last month, but a few days later, this approach had changed on the symbolic but crucial issue of whether they would be able to compete triumphantly under their own one, or as a pariah under a neutral one.
Here, the wind seems to be blowing the same way. Tomorrow’s teleconference will be attended by several figures likely to support a ban: Claudia Bokel, the soon to be former chair of the IOC Athletes’ Commission, WADA President Sir Craig Reedie, America’s Anita DeFrantz, and Australian Olympic Committee chief John Coates.
But it is hard to see much support from their remaining 11 colleagues. Take Patrick Hickey, whose dream of preserving the European Games rests on persuading Russia, effectively their only option, to host the 2019 edition. He was full of criticism for “premature conclusions” last week, but opted not to comment today.
Others, like Chinese vice-president Yu Zaiqing, have diplomatic reasons for supporting Russia, while numerous others are staunch loyalists of Thomas Bach and would be unlikely to go against him. Ukraine’s Sergey Bubka and Morocco’s Nawal El Moutawakel – who, as former athletes, would be expected to be most critical of doping – were the two members of the IAAF Council thought to be most uneasy about their decision last month.
Even Coates, as a close ally of Bach, may have reservations, and, as President of the Court of Arbitration for Sport, could even abstain from any decision.
Bach has always been the master of the soundbite. The IOC’s “zero tolerance” approach has now overtaken “getting couch potatoes off the couch” as his favourite quote. But, retesting of old samples aside, he has not backed this up with any meaningful action. His relationship with Putin and Russia, and the IOC’s standing on the international stage, just appears too important.
The IOC, so far as we can see, have two specific areas which could allow them to justify not imposing a ban on Russia from Rio 2016.
The first relates to McLaren’s reluctance to definitively and conclusively accuse the ROC of involvement. This was the crucial argument in the IOC decision to allow Russia to compete under their own flag and is likely to be used again to justify a Russian presence.
The second, related to this, is the lack of a clear precedent in the Olympic Charter for banning a country for doping. A throwaway line in the WADA comment was key here: “The necessary decisions should be taken by the relevant organisations based on their own rules and regulations.”
This line was apparently added following a specific request from Association of Summer Olympic International Federations President and WADA Board member Francesco Ricci Bitti, another close ally of Bach.
So it could be claimed that, a) the Olympic Charter does not allow them to block Russia’s presence for any reason other than a suspension of their NOC, and b) that the ROC have not done anything wrong so should not be punished.
Of course, both of these conclusions can be challenged.
In a country like Russia, the ROC is clearly implicated in the Sports Ministry. Its President Alexander Zhukov is a member of the Russian Government, for instance, while deputy Sports Minister Nagornykh sits on the ROC Executive Committee, as do many members of national governing bodies implicated in the scandal.
Furthermore, the Report cites one Irina Rodionova as having played a “coordinating” role in the doping process at Sochi 2014, liaising between the FSB and the doping laboratory. At that point, she was a ROC staff member as the head of the Monitoring and Management of Medical Anti-Doping Programmes Department.
They were thus, at the very least, implicitly involved and benefited hugely from Russian medals surely secured as a consequence of doping.
The Olympic Charter is also a document which is far from closed and restrictive. In the section on National Olympic Committees, for instance, NOC roles include “to ensure the observance of the Olympic Charter in their countries”, to “adopt and implement the World Anti-Doping Code”, and “to encourage and support measures relating to the medical care and health of athletes”. All of these were arguably broken.
Rule 59 offers plenty of sanctioning powers if these requirements are not met, which the IOC have used liberally in regards to Kuwait in recent months. If they wanted to, they would certainly have enough to justify a ban.
But interpretation is key here, and the IOC are rather good at bending things in the direction they would like.
We have contacted virtually every Olympic sport mentioned in the report to ask them for their views on a blanket ban. Most are yet to reply, or said they would respond tomorrow after the IOC meeting.
Several were more forthright: “It is much more complex and we need to be calm and come to the right decision,” said the International Canoe Federation. The International Ski Federation (FIS) added in relation to winter sports: “They are not all mentioned in the list of sports in the ‘Disappearing Positives Programme’ and in any case, each IF has to review the situation and undertake its own follow-up analysis of the report and further actions within its own sport and National Association.”
Sport is in a dangerous place, however. Sponsors and broadcasters who invest billions of dollars into the Olympics because of its reputation as a bastion of fair play and integrity must be squirming, for instance. Doping hidden within some sports, swimming for example, is threatening to increase from a trickle to a flood just like it did in cycling and athletics.
To return to a blanket ban, it is of course a very complex issue, even after today’s damning report, and banning all athletes from one country from an Olympic Games is neither straightforward nor completely fair.
But I was struck by one response from an official today when I tried to play devil’s advocate and argue against a ban. “If you’re not going to suspend them for this,” he said, “For swapping samples and cheating at a home Olympic Games, then what in the world are you ever going to suspend anyone for?”
For, above anything else, this is sport’s moment to make a first stance and really show their zero tolerance approach; and once again they could be in danger of missing the boat.
By Nick Butler
Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz