Athletes need to understand why Russia is so important to the IOC | Sean Ingle

Cas leniency is like Great Train Robbers getting community service, but a lesson in realpolitik may concentrate minds

Here is a question you may not expect to find in a sports column. When a journalist is assassinated, do financial markets care? The answer, according to new research in the journal Applied Economics, is a resounding yes. And there is more in the detail. If the murdered journalist was an editor or worked in television, stock prices of companies with headquarters in that country declined on average by 2.18%. However, if they were tortured beforehand, they fell by 3%. And if they were killed by military officials, prices went down even further by 4.62%.

This awful set of statistics tells us that the greater the crime, the more international investors became queasy. As the authors noted, the killing of journalists acts as a signal to investors “about government instability and the breakdown of human rights, the rule of law, and the democratic governance”. But, on the other hand, they also found that “when the justice system functions, and there is a prosecution, the investor confidence goes up.”

But what is the relevance to sport? Well, that study came to mind following the howls of outrage from athletes when Russia’s doping “ban” was reduced from four years to two. Unlike in the financial markets, this crime was not matched by a suitable punishment. And as a result, investor confidence – among athletes in particular – has hit rock bottom.

Note, incidentally, the inverted commas around the word ban. They are there for a reason. For the court of arbitration for sport in Lausanne has delivered a Swiss cheese of a ban, so mellow and full of holes that it barely resembles one at all.

Under this ban in name only, Russian teams and athletes will still be able to compete at the Tokyo Olympics and the 2022 World Cup. They will still wear red jerseys with the word “Russia” on them – as long as they also say “neutral athlete” as well. And while they won’t officially get to see their flag or hear their anthem, there will still be plenty of Russian fans in the stands waving their tricolours and singing “Rossiya – svyashchennaya nasha derzhava!”

Even the part of the ruling that says Russia cannot host or bid for global competitions for the next two years has potential caveats. Because the Cas decision states that sports federations must reassign hosting rights “unless it is legally or practically impossible to do so”.

There is certainly some wriggle room there, especially in a Covid-afflicted world. What are the chances that the 2021 Fifa Beach Soccer World Cup and the Sport Climbing World Championships won’t remain in Russia? And the 2022 world championships in volleyball, wrestling and shooting?

Frustratingly, at every turn Cas seems to have applied the legal equivalent of fabric softener to the original punishment, smoothing and fluffing the tougher sounding sanctions and making it smell altogether more palatable to Russia.

It is worth remembering just how big this heist was. It involved the Russian government, security services and sporting authorities all colluding to hide widespread doping across a vast majority of winter and summer sports – a practice that became state policy after the country’s poor medal count during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver.

It involved FSB agents switching steroid-riddled samples during the Sochi 2014 winter Games with clean ones – an act the IOC president, Thomas Bach, called “a shocking and unprecedented attack on the integrity of sports and on the Olympic Games”.

And then, even after this had been exposed, Russia manipulated and deleted athlete doping data from its Moscow laboratory so that the World Anti-Doping Agency could not bring most of these athletes to justice.

Yet despite all this, Cas has decided to be lenient. Incredibly, it has ruled that while Russia’s senior politicians are still banned from attending Olympic Games under their own steam, they can go if they are invited to by the hosts. It has also removed a World Anti-Doping Agency measure that put the onus on Russian athletes whose data was manipulated in the Moscow laboratory’s database to prove their innocence before being allowed to compete. It was like the perpetrators of the Great Train Robbery getting a few hours of community service.

There was surely another option. If the Cas wanted to dangle a carrot in front of Russia, it could have told them it would ease the sanctions, but only if they delivered the authentic Moscow lab data to Wada. Instead Cas bent, meaning that hundreds of Russian athletes will never be prosecuted, and the whole anti-doping system looks a little more broken as a result.

It is now more than four years since I broke the story that dozens of senior sports figures had written a private letter to the IOC and Wada accusing them of “shattering the confidence” of athletes across the globe because of their failure to do enough to tackle Russian doping.

Yet barely anything has changed. Perhaps, though, the renewed frustration among athletes and anti-doping officials that we saw last week will concentrate minds. By now they must realise that having a few athlete representatives on the IOC and Wada committees won’t give them real power in the geopolitics of major sport – they need to fight harder to fundamentally change the structures and reform these bodies for the better. But the stark realpolitik is that the IOC will always care more about important countries, such as Russia, than it does about athlete concerns.


Sean Ingle

The GuardianTramp

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