Nick Butler

“We had three main priorities here,” said International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach to open his press conference following last week’s meeting of the Executive Board in Lausanne. “Preparations for Rio, preparations for Rio and preparations for Rio.”

The Olympic Games in the Brazilian city are indeed a major challenge with less than two months to go until the Opening Ceremony, but Bach was fooling nobody. The Olympic Movement has rarely faced assaults on so many fronts, and while some of the problems - the possible ban on Russia’s athletics team and corruption allegations surrounding Tokyo 2020 - were barely discussed formally, they surely dominated the clandestine meetings which accompany any gathering of sports administrators.

One thing Bach’s Rio quote did reveal was how he still appreciates a clever quip. “You can ask me the same question [on Russia’s ban] over and over again,” he said with the hardened look of an ex-athlete relishing the joy of competition. “Maybe I will get tired and slip-up and give you an answer...but I probably won’t.”

He was notably more restrained and reluctant to chat to the media than in happier  times, but apart from that he appeared as focused as ever and ready to face sport’s many problems head-on.

Given the criticism they and most other sporting bodies have faced in recent weeks, the IOC did a fairly good job of controlling the agenda during the Executive Board meeting. On day one we had approval of five new sports at Tokyo 2020 and an extension of the re-analysis of doping samples at Beijing 2008 and London 2012.

On day two we had the inevitable deluge of good news about preparations for Rio, Pyeongchang 2018, Tokyo 2020 and the 2024 Olympics, while Kuwait’s suspension from all things sporting will continue, but “only because they have turned-down our many attempts to reach an agreement”. On the final day, we had eight new IOC members and a 10-strong Refugees Olympic Team to compete at Rio 2016.

Providing opportunities from refugees, who enjoyed a visit of the Olympic Torch to a camp in Athens in April, is a rare piece of good news for the IOC ©Getty Images
Providing opportunities from refugees, who enjoyed a visit of the Olympic Torch to a camp in Athens in April, is a rare piece of good news for the IOC ©Getty Images

As ever, it is quite easy to pick holes in the IOC propaganda drive and it is tempting to dismiss even the Olympic Refugees Team as merely another public relations exercise.

This would be a criticism too far. The team includes five South Sudanese athletes who fled a brutal sectarian conflict for the relative safety of the sprawling Kakuma camp in north-west Kenya; two judokas from the Democratic Republic of Congo who escaped war and an abusive coach for a new life in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro when in Brazil for the 2013 World Championships; and a Syrian swimmer whose packed boat took on water during a hellish journey from Turkey to Greece, only for her and her sister to jump aboard and guide the vessel to safety.

Competing in the Olympics will clearly provide a unique opportunity for all of these people. Their presence in the Opening Ceremony and the Athletes’ Village should also draw attention to refugees all over the world.

The trouble is, good things done by sports administrators are increasingly being overshadowed by the bad. During the course of Bach’s meandering 20 minute address to hail the brilliance of the Refugees Team, we were distracted, first, by confirmation of a week-long rumour that Nesta Carter, the sprinter who had raced with Usain Bolt to two Olympic and five world relay titles, was the Jamaican athlete implicated in a Beijing 2008 doping failure.

This news was still being digested when FIFA announced that Sepp Blatter, Jérôme Valcke and Markus Kattner had been secretly awarding themselves bonuses of the kind of which greedy investment bankers can only dream. We were always told that Blatter, like many leaders, was interested in power and prestige over money, but here, like with Lamine Diack, was more proof that “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. 

News that bonuses totalling $80 million  were paid to Sepp Blatter and two other key ex-FIFA officials over a five-year period broke during a Thomas Bach press conference ©Getty Images
News that bonuses totalling $80 million were paid to Sepp Blatter and two other key ex-FIFA officials over a five-year period broke during a Thomas Bach press conference ©Getty Images

It was hard to divert our attention back to refugees and, through nothing other than guilt by association, Bach’s words appeared increasingly hollow.

This was particularly so when the IOC claimed that the alleged “consultancy” fee paid by Tokyo 2020 to the Diack-linked and Singapore-based Black Tidings was not discussed at all during the meeting. “We are still assisting the French investigation, as we have been from the start,” the IOC claimed as they frantically tried to sweep the allegations back under the carpet from which they escaped from.

FIFA delayed the announcement about the former rulers until the day after criticism surrounding new President Gianni Infantino supposedly ordering the deleting of meeting notes. In doing this, they had taken a leaf out of the IOC’s playbook by responding to damaging stories with an agenda-changing announcement. The IOC last month sped-up their release of results from the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 re-tests in order to detract from negative doping stories surrounding Sochi 2014.

This marks a twist on the concept of “burying bad news”; something infamous in Britain since 2001 when a Government aide sent an email - subsequently leaked to the press - suggesting the day after 9/11 would be an opportune time to quietly release damaging statistics.

The FIFA and IOC strategy is similarly crafty albeit less morally dubious. But it is only a good idea if your announcement is watertight and, after two of the Russians implicated in positive tests produced negative B-samples, there must be growing concerns that the whole re-testing process may fall apart.

The Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) have confirmed that rower Alexander Kornilov and race-walking bronze medallist Denis Nizhegorodov each registered clean second samples following re-testing in Lausanne.

Race-walker Denis Nizhegorodov registered a clean B-sample following his positive A reading ©AFP/Getty Images
Race-walker Denis Nizhegorodov has registered a clean B-sample following his positive result in the first test ©AFP/Getty Images

One such anomaly appears possible if results are marginal; but two appears unlikely and anymore would be deeply suspicious.

Several other Russians are yet to test their B-samples, with high jumper Anna Chicherova having delayed the process until Wednesday (June 8), essentially the latest she possibly can after being notified.

Details remain hazy, and it is hard to draw firm conclusions until we know more about the substances and procedures involved.

It is possible that the presence of doping products gradually disappears from samples overtime after they are thawed, meaning the longer you wait the less likely you are to test positive. Sport ethics and anti-doping advisor Michelle Verroken has suggested the issue is more likely due to “poor sample collection procedures and collusion” than any specific laboratory issue. 

A practical consequence is that there are likely to be legal challenges galore.

The IOC have struggled with these in the past. Belarussian hammer throwers Vadim Devyatovskiy and Ivan Tsikhan were stripped of their silver and bronze medals from Beijing 2008 later that year only to be re-awarded them in 2010 after successful appeals to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. It was ruled that the Beijing Laboratory had violated "documentation and reporting requirements” in an "unusually complex doping case”. Similar problems surround the re-tested samples from Turin 2006, with the IOC having gone very quiet as legal battles continue two years after they jubilantly declared the re-testing process complete during Sochi 2014.

International Federations are also concerned that many samples, particularly those from Beijing 2008, appear suspect due to the way they were taken, while the seemingly arbitrary nature of the “targeted” re-testing is also raising questions within Federations that feel most persecuted. “First we were landed in a mess by WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) over meldonium,” said one senior International Federation official. “Now the same is happening with the IOC.”

Meldonium, remember, was added to the banned list on January 1, before WADA subsequently admitted that more research is required to ascertain how long it remains in the human body. Yes, the number one aim must be to catch cheats, but there is no point in attempting to do so with a method that buckles under legal or scientific scrutiny.

Hammer thrower Vadim Devyatovsky, now President of the Belarus Athletics Federation, kept his Beijing Olympic medal after a successful appeal to CAS ©Getty Images
Hammer thrower Vadim Devyatovsky, now President of the Belarus Athletics Federation, kept his Beijing Olympic medal after a successful appeal to CAS ©Getty Images

To return to the Olympics, D-Day for Russia is June 17 and the International Association of Athletics Federations Council meeting in Vienna in which a decision on lifting the ban will be made. But the IOC have now called for a “Stakeholders Summit” four-days later in Lausanne, and, like with his Rio-quip, Bach was not fooling anyone when he repeatedly insisted that the purpose of this meeting was far broader than to come-up with a Russian compromise.

The first point here is that, for all their focus on communicating with “stakeholders”, the IOC decision-making process appears smaller and more exclusive than ever. If the apparent lack of awareness over the new IOC members was anything to go by, even many Executive Board members are not privy to the true goings-on. Bach and IOC directors led by Christophe De Kepper are keeping a tight net.

Smart money appears to be on the IAAF opting not to lift the ban, although I would not be quite so sure. The words of Task Force head Rune Andersen last week, for instance, that they have done a “tremendous job on the technical side” suggests some improvement has been noted.

Let us assume for the moment that the ban does remain in place, then the IOC have a huge decision to take during the Lausanne-meeting. Do they stand by it and risk legal challenges and a deterioration in diplomatic relations with Russia? Do they oppose it and risk worldwide condemnation? Or do they seek a compromise, like allowing “clean” Russians to participating under the Olympic flag?

This idea was criticised by an IOC member when I put it to them last week. “Competing under the Olympic Flag is an honour which the Russian team does not deserve,” they said. “They should compete in non-branded plain uniforms in order to differentiate them from everyone else.”

What is certain is that, for all their focus on “preparations for Rio, preparations for Rio and preparations for Rio”, it is drugs and the diplomatic challenge of a country memorably described by Winston Churchill as a “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” that remains the biggest challenge. And Bach and other stakeholders cannot continue avoiding questions about Russia and suspicions over re-tested doping samples for much longer.