Nick Butler

I was at Wembley yesterday to watch my local team, Forest Green Rovers, attempt to become the first village club to make it into one of the four divisions that constitute the English Football League. A club that, since being saved from administration by an environmentalist millionaire, have banned all meat products at their ground and use cow manure rather than chemicals to fertilise the pitch.

They failed, disappointingly losing 3-1 to a more experienced and better supported Grimsby Town side in the play-off final, but it was a great day nonetheless and a reminder that, sometimes, there is more to sport than simply winning.

How different is this approach from the ruthless professionalism of Russia’s pursuit of Olympic domination at Sochi 2014? If we are to believe the account of Grigory Rodchenkov, the Moscow Laboratory chief who has absconded to Los Angeles and “told-all” in an interview with the New York Times, the Games were essentially a Cold War throwback to expand their soft power with an intrinsically calculated doping network that would appear more at home in a 1980s spy thriller.

How different also from the alleged bribe paid by the Tokyo 2020 bid team in order to supposedly secure the votes of those tempted only by greed and the highest bidder? Reaffirming what people already think about the ethics of many of those who claim to be acting only for the good of athletes.

It has been another terrible week for sport and particularly for the Olympic Movement, now directly implicated at a time when they should be putting all their focus on rescuing Rio 2016 after a week of impeachment, tightening subway extension deadlines and escalating Zika virus fears.

Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) President who ended an era of stability under Jacques Rogge in 2013 with a pledge to take the Games to new heights, has endured surely his toughest week yet, undone by what former British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan described as his biggest fear in politics: “Events, dear boy, events”.

The IOC are now fighting problems on three different flanks covering past, present and future Games. And, as anyone who has studied the First World War and Germany’s unsuccessful Schlieffen Plan in which they fruitlessly vowed to have “lunch in Paris and dinner in Saint Petersburg” will testify, it is difficult to navigate conflict on multiple fronts.

What is immediately striking is that, in comparison with many of the other journalistic reports of recent months, the latest appear far stronger and more damning in both evidence and detail.

Corruption allegations surrounding the Tokyo 2020 bidding process over payments linked to Lamine Diack (left) has been one challenge for the IOC this week ©Getty Images
Corruption allegations surrounding the Tokyo 2020 bidding process over payments linked to Lamine Diack (left) has been one challenge for the IOC this week ©Getty Images

First-up was the revelation that French police are investigating transfers totalling $2 million (£1.3 million/€1.7 million) allegedly made by Tokyo 2020 in 2013 shortly before being awarded the Olympics and Paralympics over rival bids from Istanbul and Madrid. This was supposedly paid to Black Tidings, the same mysterious Singapore-based account that cropped-up in the investigation into Russian doping cover-ups.

On that occasion, Papa Massata Diack, son of former International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) chief Lamine, was among three figures given a life-ban from athletics after allegations the account was used to channel $569,000 (£374,000/€523,000) paid by three-time Chicago Marathon champion Liliya Shobukhova in return for her doping failure being ignored.

According to Japanese Olympic Committee President and bid chief Tsunekazu Takeda, the payment this time around was a “legitimate consultancy fee” paid to Black Tidings’ official owner Ian Tan Tong Han.

Hmm. An obvious question here is what consultancy insights did Tan offer to justify his $2 million sum? We have asked Tokyo 2020, but have not yet heard.

Not too much is known about Tan. Thought to be in his 20s, he was a consultant to Athlete Management and Services, a Dentsu Sport subsidiary based in Lucerne, Switzerland, set up to market and deliver commercial rights granted to it by the IAAF. He was thus “integrated into the IAAF at the executive level”, The Guardian reported when breaking the Tokyo 2020 story. It was also claimed Tan was so close to Papa that, when his child was born in 2014, he was named Massata.

In short, it is possible to conclude that the money was in fact a bribe, paid by Tokyo to ensure the support of influential IOC member Diack and others whose vote he “influenced”.

If proved, it would be a huge blow for the IOC following their post-Salt Lake City clean-up, with Istanbul 2020 secretary general Yalcin Aksoy having already called for the Japanese capital to be stripped of the Games.

The IOC were not the only people who failed to join the dots as they perhaps should have done about Lamine Diack, who had previously been “warned” but not punished after a year-long IOC Ethics Committee investigation into alleged bribes received in the 1990s from bankrupt sports marketing company International Sport and Leisure (ISL). But it doesn't reflect well on Bach, as Diack was his staunchest ally during his feud last year with former SportAccord President Marius Vizer.

Disgraced marathon runner Liliya Shobukhova also made payments linked to Black Tidings ©Getty Images
Disgraced marathon runner Liliya Shobukhova also made payments linked to Black Tidings ©Getty Images

It does seem that any Olympic bidding corruption, if proven, is confined to the few rather than the majority, and there is no suggestion that the IOC leadership are involved. The same can be said regarding doping, where there is certainly no suggestion that Bach and other top brass were directly aware of what the Russians were doing.

Yet, by concerning the Olympics directly rather than athletics, the Sochi allegations are far more damaging than others.

A "three-drug cocktail" of banned anabolic steroids metenolone, trenbolone and oxandrolone was reportedly produced after being mixed with alcohol: Chivas whiskey for men, Martini vermouth for women. Covert techniques utilising soda containers and baby bottles would then take place to swap affected samples with clean ones, all taking place in the dead of night in Room 124, a converted storage space with its single window blacked-out. The FSB, whose office was virtually next door to the Sochi Laboratory, were involved throughout, it is claimed.

Those accused, including two-time champion bobsledder Alexander Zubkov and gold and silver medal winning cross-country skier Alexander Legkov, are threatening legal action after strongly denying all allegations.

But neutral experts all suggest the claims ring true, with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) independent observers who gave the Lab a firm, if not ringing, endorsement in their official report all analytical experts who had little expertise or interest in security matters.

Another concern related to the presence of Martial Saugy, director of the Lausanne Laboratory who denies accusations he helped Lance Armstrong avoid detection for use of erythropoietin (EPO). He was accredited to the Russian Ministry of Sport but nobody knows exactly what he was doing there, although he claims to be "shocked" by the allegations.

Rodchenkov comes across as an eccentric but highly intelligent scientist straight out of the Michelle Ferrari or Eufemiano Fuentes playbook. 

“He is a complete nutter,” one former anti-doping official said. “But I would not expect him to make-up something like this.”

The IOC released a statement that was strong by their standards, claiming the allegations are "very worrying" and must be investigated immediately. They must now take Rodchenkov up on his offer to assist them in their re-testing process as, without his unique insight, how would they know which samples are false? But, despite their supposedly “zero tolerance” approach, do the IOC really want to root out the cheats? Or do they want it all to go away so they can invite Russia back to the Games and clink champagne glasses with Vladimir Putin at  another Opening Ceremony?

Thomas Bach, pictured with Vladimir Putin, has not really lived-up to his
Thomas Bach, pictured with Vladimir Putin, has not really lived-up to his "zero-tolerance" approach ©Getty Images

Throughout this process the response of Bach has not been good enough. When we asked him about Sochi doping suspicions during the Winter Youth Olympic Games, he claimed not to be aware of any concerns. “I don’t know what you want to create here,” he countered.

When a colleague asked him about his decision to make Russian Olympic Committee President Alexander Zhukov chairman of the Evaluation Commission for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics he was similarly dismissive. And even this week when in Spain for meetings with acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, the IOC press release thereafter made no mention of Spain being deemed non-compliant with WADA or the continual lack of news about the Operación Puerto doping samples.

It is an open secret that Bach is desperate for the ban on Russian athletes to be lifted in time for Rio 2016 but after the last week there is even less reason to justify doing so.

UK Anti-Doping are reportedly considering ending their work in Russia due to the non-cooperation they are facing while The Times reported today that IAAF Council members are becoming increasingly convinced the required changes are not being made.

Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko has been making new acquaintances in the Western press over the last month, now claiming to be “sorry” for the doping, although he blamed athletes and refused to accept any Government responsibility.

He claims, like voices in the IOC, that “clean athletes” would be punished if the ban remained in place. But how can we be confident that any Russians are clean if samples are being switched? What about clean athletes from all other countries who could once again be denied medals by doping Russians in Rio?

Lifting the ban now would be a sign that wrongdoing will continue to go unpunished. Keeping it in place would be a genuine warning and the best long-term means of assisting “clean athletes”. Otherwise, future Games will be as tainted as Sochi 2014 already is in the minds of many.

Differences in opinion remain over whether athletics at Rio 2016 would benefit or be harmed by a Russian presence
Differences in opinion remain over whether athletics at Rio 2016 would benefit or be harmed by a Russian presence ©Getty Images

The trouble, it barely needs to be said, relates to politics, and for these reasons the IOC, WADA, the IAAF and other arms of the sports world do not want to upset a country as powerful as Russia. There were even rumours that Kenya may be used as a sacrificial lamb to justify a Russian return, before the IAAF insisted they will be there this week despite a WADA non-compliance ruling - news almost buried among everything else going on.

Wider politics has always been important, of course. Yet you do feel that Bach - with his obsession with using sport for the greater good, working with the United Nations and publishing photos of himself hobnobbing with international leaders - has made the whole process increasingly so, with decisions therein made more on diplomatic than sporting grounds.

Bach, is a sportsman, of course, a fencing team foil gold medal winner at Montreal 1976 before becoming a lawyer turned administrator of immense intelligence and skill. But navigating the multi-flanked conflict now emerging and keeping Russia, the press, public, the world's athletes and all other stakeholders on side, is going to be the biggest challenge of his career so far.