IOC miss the mark with Russia decision

8 mins read

Well, we were made to wait for it. Almost a week after WADA’s “McLaren Report” found evidence of state-sponsored doping by Russian athletes, the IOC have announced what sanctions Russian sportsmen and women hoping to compete at the upcoming Olympic Games will face.

Or rather, they haven’t.

Instead of a ‘blanket ban’ on Russian competitors in Rio – as called for by WADA, Dr Richard McLaren, various former and current athletes and many, many more – the IOC has decided against implementing such a sanction, much to the chagrin of the aforementioned parties. The alternative? The governing bodies of each individual sport included in the Olympic programme will be left to decide the fate of Russians hoping to be part of the greatest show on Earth.

However, whilst Thomas Bach – president of the IOC – and the remaining 14 members of the IOC executive board may feel like this constitutes a successful resolution, the reality is that this has only exacerbated the problem.

Thomas Bach
IOC president Thomas Bach

In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll state now that I’m not convinced that a blanket ban was the correct course of action. In my opinion, it paints a distinctly black and white picture from a subject matter that has more shades of grey than you can eloquently quantify. No sane person is saying that all Russians are drug cheats, and clean athletes should be given the chance to prove themselves as such on the greatest stage of them all. If all other options penalising the individual have been eliminated, then you go for the blanket ban on the federation. In my opinion, of course.

My opinion doesn’t hold any sway whatsoever with the IOC. The advice given by WADA, though, should. Once WADA had recommended a blanket ban, then, agree with it or not, that should have been the course of action taken by the IOC. Any other choice ran the risk of undermining the WADA commission, and that is exactly what has happened.

The detail of the IOC’S ‘ruling’ is where the proverbial can of worms is truly opened, however. There are 28 sports in the Olympic Games. That’s 28 international governing bodies. Those 28 governing bodies are now saddled with the decision that the IOC has deferred to them. They have less than 12 days to come to a conclusion, the scale of which is unprecedented in recent Olympiads. There simply isn’t enough time for each governing body to make an informed decision of their own.

Athletics - Russian and Olympic Flags
No blanket ban will be imposed on Russia at the upcoming Olympics

As if that wasn’t complicated enough, the governing bodies will also have to make sure that Russian competitors in their jurisdiction adhere to what the IOC terms a “rigourous anti-doping programme outside of Russia”. There’s a small problem though – no-one seems to know the exact requirements for such a programme. Furthermore, 12 days is nowhere near long enough to establish the infrastructure for such a regime, and places unnecessary pressure on governing bodies.

Then we come to the two points which have raised the most controversy from the Olympic world. One of the IOC’s criteria for Russians to be allowed to compete is that they must have a completely clean doping record. If they have failed a drugs test previously in their career – no matter if they have served their ban – they will be prohibited from competing in Rio.

This, in theory, is excellent. Any drug cheat, unless they can prove extenuating circumstances such as medical reasons, should absolutely be banned from the Olympics as a matter of course. However, this ban only applies to Russian athletes, a simply baffling point of logic from the IOC. Justin Gatlin, Tyson Gay, Michael Rodgers and LaShawn Merritt could, in theory, form the USA’s 4x100m relay team. They have all failed drugs tests in the past, yet all are going to Rio. Similarly, Sun Yang is one of China’s big medal hopes in the pool, despite having served a ban in 2014. And in cycling, Alejandro Valverde could line up on the start line for Spain, eight years after being banned for doping offences. You need to be consistent in your rulings, something that the IOC, in this instance, is clearly not.

Do you see why people are annoyed?

Finally, the bone of contention that has united federations across the world in their condemnation of the IOC. This entire investigation would not have occurred if it were not for Russian athlete Yuliya Stepanova blowing the whistle on her own federation. As someone who had been part of the alleged doping programme, no-one knew the practices better than her. Her reward for helping the authorities? Being told she can’t compete in Rio because she doesn’t meet the IOC’s ethical criteria.

Some way of expressing your gratitude, right?

Whistleblower Yuliya Stepanova will not be allowed to compete in Rio

In an interview to this very newspaper in April, the former head of WADA Dick Pound stated that he was disappointed at the lack of athletes that report illegal practices to the authorities. However, Mr Pound offered an explanation that, in light of the case of Stepanova, seems oddly prophetic. He stated that “it’s partly because sporting organisations are really tough on whistle-blowers – they get treated worse than the perpetrators and so there’s not much incentive”. On this evidence, there’s no incentive whatsoever if whistleblowers will be treated like pariahs by those they approach for help.

Thomas Bach said in the wake of the McLaren Report that “the toughest sanctions available” would be implemented on those incriminated. Maybe they will – but, on this evidence, not by the IOC, and not on those who deserve them.

by Craig Wright

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