Last week was a chance for the sports world to react and pause for breath following revelations of doping and corruption which, if proven, could still rip it apart.
International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach, as is his way, attempted to change the agenda by announcing how 31 athletes could be banned from Rio 2016 following retests of samples submitted at Beijing 2008. A “powerful strike”, he claimed, before resisting a laboratory’s worth of questions from teasing journalists attempting to make him criticise Russia following the latest raft of allegations surrounding Sochi 2014, something he will not do until aware of “all the facts”.
These facts could be laid out sooner than expected, however, with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) pledging to complete their report into the claims of former Moscow Laboratory director Grigory Rodchenkov by July 15 - and to publish a maximum of five days later. This comes after the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) deadline to decide whether Russian athletes can compete at Rio 2016, but, crucially, is three weeks before the Opening Ceremony of the Games.
Plenty more revelations and side-stepping can be expected before then as all other goings-on in the Olympic Movement continue to be overshadowed.
One interesting development last week was the possible impact on the two front-runners in the fledgling race for the 2024 Olympics and Paralympics: Paris and Los Angeles.
This comes as a French investigation into corruption allegations surrounding disgraced IAAF chief Lamine Diack continues, already implicating a successful Olympic bid by Tokyo 2020 and an unsuccessful one by Doha for 2016. The United States Department of Justice announced in the midst of all of this that they were launching a rival investigation into Russian doping, scrutinising, according to the New York Times, “anyone who might have facilitated unclean competition in the US or used the US banking system to conduct a doping programme”.
It is the latter move that appears the more obvious threat. "US plays ‘World Prosecutor’ in Doping Probe against Russian Athletes", barked Russian website Sputnik in an article. Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko - who automatically denies every allegation thrown at him with the same relish in which the IOC promote their “zero tolerance” anti-doping approach - claimed to be “puzzled” by the move. He suggested the US should focus on doping problems closer to home as the “atmosphere there is far from cloudless”.
Sporting officials tend to wholeheartedly agree with this dismissal and I must admit that, when first reading of the allegations, I reacted in a similar way. “Typical Americans, blundering into matters that don’t concern them acting as the world’s police,” I thought to myself. As Mutko suggests, the US have plenty on their own plate, with seven Major League Baseball (MLB) players having failed doping tests in the first six weeks of the season and other professional sporting leagues riddled with similar problems.
The US response to this would be that at least they are taking action, but the country has in the past handed convicted cheats a slap on the wrist rather than a genuine punishment, with sprinters and likely Rio 2016 squad-members Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay two that spring to mind. America has also, of course, produced surely the most notorious individual drug cheat of all-time in seven-time Tour de France winning cyclist Lance Armstrong.
In foreign policy they talk of “American Exceptionalism”, where the US must educate and export its moral superiority to the rest of the world, and this appears another example. This perceived US arrogance is a major pitfall which must be dispelled if Los Angeles 2024 is to appeal to the majority of voting IOC members from outside Western heartlands, and a move like this could undo all the good work done by American sporting officials over recent years.
Bach always seems to choose one question in a press conference to dismiss out-of-hand and it was the US investigation that prompted this last week. "We have no information on this,” he said. “I don’t even know about what it is.”
There is another way of looking at this, of course.
While the US have been slow to act in some doping cases, such as with Armstrong, rather like in two World Wars when they do get involved, they make a telling contribution. An unlikely combination of plucky British journalists and the strong arm of the US Anti-Doping Agency and Federal authorities proved key in Armstrong's case, and the US were again key during the investigations into footballing corruption, culminating in the mass arrests during last year’s FIFA Congress in Zurich.
How often has a major scandal in sport unravelled due to the action of a specifically sporting body? Last year’s allegations of state sponsored doping surrounding Russian athletics, I suppose, came out after the WADA Independent Commission followed up the efforts of a German journalist. But there are not many other examples.
Are sporting administrators thus keener to turn a blind eye to allegations in order to protect themselves from external interference? A similar motivation, perhaps, to WADA’s opposition to jail terms for doping cheats?
And should sport not be more concerned with finding out the truth than criticising rival investigators? The only role doping should play in the bid process, it could justifiably be claimed, is counting against bidding countries with doping problems. Okay, this was a factor in the 2020 race, where critical questions from British member Adam Pengilly against both Istanbul and Madrid on voting day were each seen as boosting Tokyo’s bid, although history may attribute this slightly lower down the scale of importance than alleged backhanders channelled to dodgy Diack and his cohort of accomplices.
To return to Los Angeles 2024, however, the reality is that it is sporting administrators who decide who hosts the Olympic Games rather than the baying press and public. A US investigation therefore would be a major challenge whatever the ethics behind this opposition. I spoke at length to a National Olympic Committee President from a non-English speaking country last month, for example, who was adamant Paris will win the 2024 race because of these anti-American sentiments.
The Department of Justice call was made by one individual US attorney prosecutor in Brooklyn, who will probably be replaced when the new White House administration is installed at the beginning of next year. But it does appear more than one lone crusader striking out to solve the world’s doping problems on his own, and it is possible - as others have pointed out - that the lame duck regime of Barack Obama is attempting to use sport for some wider political purpose to put pressure on Russia.
This appeared to prompt the response of United States Olympic Committee (USOC) chief executive Scott Blackmun over the weekend, with the official uncharacteristically hard-hitting when telling the Associated Press how sport has reached a "defining moment" in which "strong leadership and decisive action" is required. Words probably designed to navigate a political tightrope between performing a national duty but doing so without overly offending the sports world.
If there is a concerted effort by the White House, then, like with his early-morning arrival in Copenhagen to trumpet Chicago 2016 at the 2009 IOC Session to his impulsive boycott of Sochi 2014, Obama has not played the nuanced world of international sports politics at all well.
This is more of a nagging concern than an immediate worry. The 2024 race is still relatively low on the radar and many of the voters at next September’s IOC Session in Lima have not even joined sport’s most prestigious club so far, let alone made up their minds.
Time will tell whether the Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton administrations next year make a similar approach - and that will ultimately prove more significant for the Californian Olympic bid.
The impact of the French investigation on Paris is harder to fathom. As well as the alleged payment made by Tokyo 2020 to the mysterious Singapore-based and Diack-linked company Black Tidings, there is still the outstanding issue of alleged parcels arranged by Diack’s son Papa to six IOC members during the unsuccessful Doha 2016 effort, as reported in The Guardian in January, with the initials of those implicated reportedly known to investigators.
One reflection on this is that few people in the Olympic Movement are bothered about Diack anymore and there would be little attempt to avoid more damaging allegations emerging about him. If a few other bad apples in the IOC are ultimately pulled down with him, would that really be much of a blow either?
I’m not sure I agree with this as the claims concerning Tokyo are far more damaging to the IOC’s overall reputation than just the individuals it implicates. For the time being at least, there does not appear to be too much criticism of the investigators themselves. The crucial difference is that they are seen as having a just reason to launch their probe. The potential US one, conversely, is not seen as justified even if links to American interests are found.
But it could become more of an issue in the future, with rumours suggesting the French investigators are stalling due to the impact on Paris 2024 as well as wider political interests. To return to the Doha 2016 angle, France and Qatar have significant economic relations and it would be dangerous to risk upsetting these. Michel Platini, remember, admitted French "political and economic influences" were a factor in his decision to vote for the Qatar 2022 World Cup bid in 2010, with suggestions this was on the order of then President Nicolas Sarkozy. It is possible both the Japanese and Singaporean Governments could be implicated, particularly due to the possible involvement of marketing giants Dentsu, who have strong links to the Government.
This is therefore a fascinating subplot for both bids and something that could continue to play a role as the four-horse race with Budapest and Rome intensifies over coming months. If allegations against Sochi and Tokyo are proven, however, then by the time a decision is made on the 2024 bidder, the whole landscape of the Olympic world could have changed.