They got there in the end.
It was not so much a meandering path as a three-year long deviation around Siberia, up the Urals and to the bottom of Lake Baikal before the International Olympic Committee (IOC) finally delivered on Russia and proposed a verdict which most neutral observers believe represents a fair balance between natural justice and a necessary deterrence.
It was almost three years to the day since the original ARD documentary which exposed evidence of doping among Russian athletics. This story, probably not entirely coincidentally, broke during the “Extraordinary” IOC Session in Monte Carlo at which Bach successfully shepherded through all 40 of his Agenda 2020 reforms. Recommendations 15 to 17 concerns anti-doping, but the IOC did not see too bothered about the new revelations.
More ARD and Sunday Times allegations emerging seven months later at the next IOC Session in Kuala Lumpur appeared an unwelcome distraction rather than a genuine cause for concern. British IOC member Adam Pengilly raised the Russia question in the miscellaneous section of the agenda and Bach responded by breaking tradition and allowing an IOC honorary member, one soon-to-be-outgoing International Association of Athletics Federations President Lamine Diack, to address the floor and fiercely deny all wrongdoing.
Diack was subsequently arrested and directly implicated before a state-sponsored system was first outlined in an initial World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)-commissioned report chaired by IOC member Richard Pound.
Pound said then that “we cannot be confident there was no manipulation of results at Sochi 2014”. Bach, though, batted off such concerns and appeared riled by questions about the issue in early 2016 during the Winter Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer.
In February, he selected Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) President Alexander Zhukov to chair a Coordination Commission for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games. Dimitry Chernyshenko, the ex-President and chief executive of Sochi 2014, was chosen as a member.
Three months later and the New York Times revelations from Moscow Laboratory head turned whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov forced a U-turn. Bach now spoke about a “shocking new dimension in doping” and the “unprecedented level of criminality” of which Russia had been accused, but he remained reluctant to act with anything more than words.
“Shocking” was a very good word. I still remember where I was when first reading this report and the claims of mouseholes in walls, clandestine FSB operations and steroid-tinged cocktails seemed more befitting of a Cold War era spy thriller than modern sport.
Events swiftly started to accelerate out of control and, amid growing calls for Russia to be handed a blanket ban from Rio 2016, Bach stood firm and prioritized “individual justice” over “collective responsibility”. I think hindsight has shown that this was the correct decision. The second WADA-commissioned investigation by Richard McLaren was, by necessity, rushed and it was better to wait until more evidence could be found before a final punishment.
But the whole way by which the IOC decision was announced offered nothing to pacify those who believed in the need for an anti-doping deterrent. A rule attempting to hand all athletes convicted of doping a lifetime Olympic ban was always destined to fail and appeared came across as a rather petty attempt to prevent middle-distance runner turned whistleblower Yuliya Stepanova from participating.
Bach and his allies then encouraged IOC members to queue and blame WADA and McLaren himself for the Russian problems during the IOC Session in Rio de Janeiro. A similar thing happened a few months later at the Association of National Olympic Committees General Assembly in Doha.
It was at the final IOC Executive Board meeting of 2016 in December where we first detected a different tone. Bach was more relaxed, and it was made clear that once the Schmid and Oswald Commission investigations he had commissioned were completed, then strong action would be taken.
We have constantly been told ever since that neutral participation was on the cards for Pyeongchang 2018. IOC officials claimed again today that this has always been their plan.
I am not convinced. In August, there were reports that a large fine would instead be issued to fund the anti-doping effort and IOC officials gave the impression of being irritation by the release of the Icarus documentary which brought the doping crisis to the level of the general public. Bach insisted publicly that he had not seen it.
Bach also hit out over and over again about “premature calls” for a Russian sanction from anti-doping advocates but refused to condemn similar statements in the opposite direction from the Russian side. This was despite implicit threats that Russia would boycott if told to compete neutrally.
Gradually, though, the tone began to change.
Was it the growing weight of evidence following the new database obtained by WADA from the Moscow Laboratory? Or was it the overtly politicizing messages coming from Russia, where Vladimir Putin attempted to blame a “United States led” lobby attempting to influence Russia’s Presidential elections next year?
Suddenly, we lost the “individual justice” rhetoric and started hearing about how “the situation now is very different to before Rio 2016”. In Rio, we were told that there was no way to sanction the ROC because they were not directly implicated, but we were now told that anybody signing the Olympic Charter and Host City Contract was complicit.
A shift had taken place and it appeared a change motivated by their conclusion that it was now more politically convenient to ban than not ban rather than by any profound anti-doping sentiment.
There are aspects of today’s decision motivated by the same political tinge. The OAR (Olympic Athletes from Russia) acronym may please the many rowers in the IOC but it was also different from the IOA (Independent Olympic Athletes) label which Kuwait and other participants from suspended NOCs have competed under at recent Games.
Was the presence of the word “Russia” in the title a compromise solution to avoid a boycott?
Probably, yes. And yet, on the other hand, does this really matter?
Of course, politics is going to play a role in any decision and is the IOC wrong for wanting to avoid a repeat of the boycott-toned 1980s? They also, as they have admitted, want to punish Russia in Pyeongchang and then draw a line under it. This would avoid getting bogged down in a similar way to way WADA’s insistence on an apology and admission accepting the McLaren Report could trigger months more stalemate.
It is therefore too early to judge the IOC decision once and for all.
It remains possible that Russia could boycott and the reaction there since the announcement has been overwhelmingly negative and, as ever, the response of President Putin will be key.
The results of the imminent Russian appeals to the Court of Arbitration for Sport by the 25 individual athletes so far disqualified from Sochi 2014 will also be vital. If these fail, then it will certainly be harder to justify neutral participation.
But even this does not mean the allegations are false. Despite the realms of testimonies, scratches, salt-analysis, emails, diaries and DNA – not to mention the yet-to-be-published WADA database content – it remains hard to find a smoking gun, and even harder to directly prove the complicity of individuals within the Sports Ministry.
And this, remember, comes in a saga which has essentially intensified due to one remarkable fluke. The American documentary maker who randomly made contact with a Russian laboratory director just before he needed a way out of the country to turn whistleblower. If this had not happened, then it is likely that none of the Sochi evidence would have emerged.
A final question here concerns the legacy for anti-doping and the IOC.
It is another seminal moment in the murky history of doping stretching from Ben Johnson to Festina; from Lance Armstrong to BALCO. Yet it is perhaps the biggest ever stand that doping is unacceptable and should go some way in coercing other countries to address problems elsewhere.
It would have been nice, however, if Bach had praised the role that investigative journalism had played in the investigation today, and encouraged similar work in the future.
It would also be nice if other sporting bodies – including FIFA and the various winter federations – now adopted a similar stance to the one the IOC has belatedly taken.
Is the reputation of Bach and the IOC better now than yesterday?
In a way, yes, because they final put their heads about the parapet and made a decision in the interest of clean sport. It may not solve the current bidding crisis in the western world, but it will go some way towards showing that they are not completely out of touch with opinions there.
That said, there is much work still to do. The IOC still face lingering corruption allegations, remember, surrounding bid processes for multiple Olympic Games and Bach must do much more if his personal reputation as a leader of integrity is to be salvaged.
It reminds me of a quote by British wartime leader Winston Churchill after a 1942 victory at the Second Battle of El Alamein in Egypt.
This is not the end,” Churchill said. “It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
The same can be said for the many problems of anti-doping and the IOC.
By Nick Butler
Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.