IOC must decide which way to jump over Russia at the Olympics | Owen Gibson

Vast database of damning evidence should help root out more offenders but new global anti-doping system is needed after Rio Games

It was one of those vignettes that, even at the time, was clearly worth filing away for future reference. As Thomas Bach exited the hall of the Buenos Aires Hilton after realising his long-held ambition and securing the presidency of the International Olympic Committee in 2013, a phone was thrust into his hand amid the scrum. On the other end of the line was Vladimir Putin, the first to offer his congratulations to the man who was now among the most powerful in sport.

Less than a year later, the German was shoulder to shoulder with Putin to hail the “excellent Games” in Sochi, a $51bn show of excess and Russian success that as we now know was underpinned by an elaborate doping scam taking in steroid cocktails nicknamed Duchess, secret agents disguised as sewer workers, fake walls and a mouse hole through which dirty samples were swapped for clean ones.

These were not just the usual platitudes delivered at the end of every Games. Bach instead went on the offensive, telling critics who had called into question the preparations and profligate spending to eat their words and reserving particular praise for the “zero tolerance” stance on doping. He also said there was nothing wrong with Putin attaching himself so personally to the event. “In all big events, a country, also the political leadership, hopefully benefits from the success of the event,” said Bach. “This is a legitimate interest.”

Spool forward to June 2015 and Bach was pictured sitting in the comfy seats high up in Baku’s new stadium between the ruling Aliyev family, who ruthlessly clamped down on freedom of speech in the run up to their bizarre European Games. It is that close personal relationship that Putin has no doubt been attempting to leverage as the grim Russian doping saga has played out.

That personal dynamic sits behind the political one now being played out in the wake of Richard McLaren’s damning report that builds on Dick Pound’s earlier work in athletics. Yet Pound, who knows the overlapping worlds of Wada, the IOC and geopolitics as well as anyone, is one of several who retain a jaundiced outlook on whether the IOC will have the guts to bar Russia from the Games outright.

The most likely option remains that the IOC will leave it to individual federations, the course of action hinted at in the wake of the IAAF’s decision to ban all Russian athletes except the handful untainted by the system. Now that its bold and admirably legally watertight decision has been upheld by the court of arbitration for sport, it leaves the way clear for the IOC to act. Or, if viewed cynically, removes one last excuse for them not to do so. The IOC must decide which way to jump in the coming days.

But if it does leave the decision to individual sports, consider that each of those member federations are as riven with political infighting, potential corruption and conflicts of interest as their bigger brothers at Fifa and the IAAF. The end result will likely be a confusing mess of Russians randomly scattered across Rio.

It’s also worth considering why we have ended up here just over a fortnight before the opening ceremony. In light of what McLaren managed to stand up in a few months, it almost beggars belief there would not even have been a Wada investigation into the implications for other sports, partly for cost reasons, if the former Moscow lab boss Grigory Rodchenko had not spoken to the New York Times.

Even now, there is some doubt over whether McLaren or another independent figure will continue to sift the vast database of evidence that contains multiple leads or consider where the trail may lead, with cost considerations again hinted at.

It is perhaps true a global anti-doping system led by the noise of the media and aided by brave, frustrated whistleblowers is not the perfect solution. But in the absence of a properly funded independent anti-doping operation with teeth, it is the only one we have got.

It always seemed likely that if Russia was operating a state sponsored doping system in athletics then it was almost certainly doing the same in other sports.

And it seemed equally likely the programme was being run in parallel with Putin’s determination to project Russian power through a series of major sporting events, running from the world athletics championships in 2013 through the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics to the world swimming championships (Fina being another good sized rock to look under) in 2015 and on to the 2018 World Cup.

Consider too it has long been speculated in the Olympic and anti-doping world that Rodchenko’s evidence would range beyond the Sochi Games. The outgoing Wada director general David Howman confirmed in a Guardian interview last month that would be the case. As long ago as 2013, the Mail on Sunday revealed the rotten heart of the Moscow lab at the centre of the claims. Instead of being ahead of the game, the IOC has too often appeared two steps behind – waiting to see if the chips will fall in favour of it being able to maintain inertia.

Vitaly Mutko, the man who once claimed for 97 breakfasts during the 20-day Vancouver Winter Olympics and later said Russia’s 2018 bid team could not help corruption investigators because their computers had been wiped, is just one common thread running through all of the above.

Bit by bit, the IOC’s natural inclination to allow Russian athletes to compete has been chipped away at by a combination of damning evidence and mounting public anger. Short-term politics risks obscuring long-term damage to the Olympic brand.

If it is possible to feel sympathy for “clean” athletes who will be caught up in this and accept the focus must be much, much wider than Russia post-Rio, then it is also possible to feel natural justice demands a sanction commensurate with the crime perpetrated by the Russian system on its own athletes.

Beyond that, an entirely new approach to anti-doping is clearly required but in the here and now, two weeks out from an Olympics beset by problems on all sides, the sight of a Russian team in whatever guise marching around the track in the opening ceremony cannot help but seem like the worst of all possible outcomes.


Owen Gibson

The GuardianTramp

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