Nick Butler

Rarely can the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have received as much criticism as it did across Western media this morning.

“There have been some shameful episodes in the IOC’s long history, but none more cowardly than its decision to allow Russia to send a team to next month’s Games in Rio de Janeiro,” began The Times in a bruising back page lead.

“Putin’s Poodle,” roared Bild, a leading tabloid in the IOC President Thomas Bach’s native Germany. “All Bach but no bite,” quipped several others. Even Chilean newspaper El Gráfico got in on the act, chirping “Para Rusia Con Amor” in full James Bond film tribute mode aside pictures of celebrating Russian athletes.

Far more damaging for Bach and the IOC’s reputation, perhaps, was the jubilant reactions in Russia after a decision against a blanket-ban following evidence of state-sponsored doping; billed as a tough response but presented more like a slap on the wrist.

It is interesting seeing how times have changed since Bach was elected President almost three years ago in Buenos Aires; eagerly receiving his now infamous congratulatory phone call from Vladimir Putin afterwards. 

After much-needed consolidation in the early 2000s, the latter years of Jacques Rogge’s Presidency had been a period of stagnation, and the arrival of the affable fencer-turned-lawyer was seen as a way to reinvigorate the Games. Success followed, with new broadcasting deals negotiated and the 40 Agenda 2020 recommendations passed unanimously within a year. Bach also impressed with his easy going manner and quip-laden public appearances.

But the honeymoon bubble began to burst as four European cities pulled out of the 2022 Winter Olympic race until only autocratic Asian candidates Almaty and Beijing were left. Problems were also mounting with the 2016 host of Rio de Janeiro as the Brazilian optimism of 2009 collapsed in a mire of corruption and inequality. In 2015, Bach easily survived his first serious challenge from International Judo Federation and SportAccord President Marius Vizer, but a more ruthless, scheming and political side to his leadership style was emerging.

Vladimir Putin (left) was among the first to congratulate Thomas Bach after his election as IOC President ©Getty Images
Vladimir Putin (left) was among the first to congratulate Thomas Bach after his election as IOC President ©Getty Images

The jokes did not disappear completely, but press conferences were becoming increasingly confusing, littered with long-winded explanations in which real meanings were invariably hidden behind public relations-driven rhetoric. Nobody dared follow Vizer’s public criticism, but unease was growing in snatches of conversation gleaned in bars and hotel lobbies. A common complaint was that Bach was overly prioritising the diplomatic status of the IOC, hobnobbing with political leaders at the expense of its primary sporting role.

As this year began, the IOC successfully stayed in the background as FIFA and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) rose to the centre of mounting corruption and doping allegations. Any slight against the Olympics was dismissed, but it only seemed a matter of time before they were more directly implicated.

That happened in May as corruption allegations surrounding the 2020 bidding race emerged almost in the same week as Grigory Rodchenkov made his astonishing revelations about doping at Sochi 2014.

Suddenly, a “zero tolerance” approach in which everything was merely “referred to the Ethics Committee” would no longer suffice.

Pressure mounted as the ticking time bomb of Richard McLaren’s investigation unfolded, and, while the IAAF and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) belatedly shifted to a hardline response, the IOC remained steadfast, prioritising diplomacy and reassuring Russia both privately and publicly by insisting how they would compete under their own flag in Rio. Bach led this approach, but was supported by the majority of his Executive Board as well as his wider membership, many of whom had wider sporting or political motivations for maintaining strong relations with Russia.

In this context, the verdict to avoid a blanket ban was unsurprising.

Thomas Bach has been fiercely criticsed for the IOC verdict to avoid a blanket ban, although some did support the decision and the reaction in Russia has been jubilant ©Getty Images
Thomas Bach has been fiercely criticsed for the IOC verdict to avoid a blanket ban, although some did support the decision and the reaction in Russia has been jubilant ©Getty Images

As we have said before, the decision was far from easy, and we were looking at it in black and white fashion, without the sense of responsibility felt by Bach. McLaren’s report was rushed, deliberately so, in order to be completed this month, and we cannot yet be sure how many members of the Russian Olympic team were implicated.

But the allegations alone were simply shocking. To cheat at a home Olympic Games by feeding fake samples through a mouse-hole in the dead of night was staggering, even for journalistic veterans who have been covering doping stories for decades, and we have heard too many stringent denials and counter-attacks from Russia to believe anything they say. Yes, more evidence is needed, but it is only likely to strengthen the case against them further.

It was for this reason that I and many others thought a ban was necessary to create a clear statement that this sort of cheating would not be tolerated.

Most people on social media and in the sports world seem to agree. This includes those outside the traditional “West”, with leading sporting figures in Peru and Kuwait two I have spoken to who spring to mind. Others were uneasy, including those with no political ties to Russia like my insidethegames colleague David Owen, who highlighted the danger of setting a precedent in which even one innocent athlete could be banned from attending an Olympic Games.

It was this distinction between “individual justice” and “collective responsibility” which the IOC banged-on about so strongly in their various statements yesterday.

The trouble was, it was hard to believe that this was their real reason for opting against the ban. I did not hear Bach speak yesterday, but have been told that he was at his waffling best, and that the IOC statement was typically confusing - a legal and practical mess.

They passed the buck over to the International Federations to make a final decision with 12 days to go until the Opening Ceremony and then banned Russian athletes who have already returned from suspensions, even though a similar proposal has failed numerous times to pass through the courts. And then, for good measure, they refused to allow Yuliya Stepanova, the doping cheat turned whistleblower who provided the first allegations in 2014, to compete. Stepanova is challenging the ruling and disputes the claim that she “declined to compete as a member of the ROC [Russian Olympic Committee] team".

It would have been simple for the IOC to find a way for Yuliya Stepanova to compete at Rio 2016 ©Getty Images
It would have been simple for the IOC to find a way for Yuliya Stepanova to compete at Rio 2016 ©Getty Images
Allowing her presence would have been a relatively simple way to appease the critics and reward whistleblowers, but the decision was presumably based on a special request from the Russians, who view her as a traitor. Presumably also, the choice to bar convicted cheats was an insurance policy to ensure Stepanova’s absence, and one which the Russians had promised. They claim that there was no way for her to compete other than for a National Olympic Committee, but this is clearly rubbish as they are sending a refugees team to Rio. And the handing over of responsibility to IFs completely contravenes the plans to take responsibility for tackling doping away from individual federations. Murky politics has therefore triumphed once again.

It is naïve of any of us to seriously think the IOC seriously have a zero tolerance doping approach, but their many inconsistencies over recent years are still worth pointing out.

Take the alleged pressure they inflicted on the WADA Independent Observers programme at Sochi 2014 to conclude positively, even though they were aware of underlying concerns ahead of the Games.

Or the rumours that leading IOC officials have been pressuring sports officials from investigating Russian doping until after Rio 2016; successfully in some cases or unsuccessfully in others. Or the way Bach responded to a question on doping concerns by British member Adam Pengilly at last year’s IOC Session in Kuala Lumpur by granting special permission for then IAAF President Lamine Diack to defend his sport. The same Lamine Diack, lest we forget, who is now at the centre of a strangely silent French investigation into claims he accepted bribes in return for covering-up Russian doping. When I asked a top IOC official afterwards what he thought of Pengilly’s question, “it wasn’t very helpful, was it”, was the reply. Naturally it wasn’t, because it deviated from the official policy of sweeping concerns under the carpet.

Of course, ignoring doping problems has been an IOC problem long before the arrival of Bach. Cover-ups and playing-downs have been the order of the day, and, in a way, this was understandable so long as they could get away with it, because the Olympics would not have enjoyed the same commercial boom if they had been so upfront about rampant drugs use. There are still those rumours that the Ben Johnson positive only emerged due to an official giving the wrong answer to an inquisitive journalist.

But now, with the spotlight greater than ever, the IOC are facing its greatest test, and it is becoming harder for the Olympics to live-up to its values of honesty and integrity which entice sponsors and broadcasters to come on board. More problems at Rio 2016 will make things worse, be they in relation to doping or the running of the Games.

This weekend’s reaction conjures memories of the reaction to the Festina Affair in cycling, when the discovery of a car packed with doping paraphernalia before the 1998 Tour de France led to all nine team members confessing to using EPO (erythropoietin), but no investigations into drug use in the rest of the peloton. The following year’s event was marketed as the Tour of Renewal, only to be won by one Lance Armstrong, and, like every edition until 2005, subsequently erased from the record books when he belatedly confessed to doping.

The comparison here is not perfect, because while Festina were only doing what virtually every other team was doing, the state sponsored doping in Russia was more extreme than what most of the rest of the world has been doing.

But it is still a useful analogy of what happens when you only take a weak and convoluted response. As McLaren himself said, we are only at the tip of iceberg, and there is much more to come.

The Festina affair was ultimately a precurser to cycling's worst doping problems rather than the main course ©Getty Images
The Festina affair was ultimately a precurser to cycling's worst doping problems rather than the main course ©Getty Images
At time of writing, it is good to see some Russians missing out on Rio due to McLaren Report findings, but it appears all too likely that some competing in Rio will subsequently be implicated - and that would merit huge concern.

It is imperative that the Canadian be given all the support he needs to fully research all his conclusions, and that meaningful punishments follows. Other countries - including in the West but especially in ex-Soviet spheres like in Azerbaijan, Belarus and Kazakhstan - should also undergo similar scrutiny. Other bodies, like WADA, should not be exempt from criticism, and we are still yet to know exactly what former Lausanne Laboratory head Martial Saugy was doing with a Russian accreditation at Sochi 2014, for instance.

Despite some calls for him to resign today, Bach is virtually unchallenged in his IOC post. One rival in Marius Vizer was ruthlessly swatted out of the way last year and another potential one in Association of National Olympic Committees head Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah currently seems a shadow of his formerly influential self, due mainly to distractions back home in Kuwait. While privately critical, most other officials are shamelessly supportive in public, and other critics, like Pengilly, will soon be replaced by a loyal coterie of new IOC members. Even his old foe Richard Pound is increasingly isolated on the backbenches, more influential in the media than in decision-making corridors.

But the German is now likely to be seen as the man who resisted the opportunity to give a clear signal against doping. He still has a lot of work to do to prove his priority is sport rather than politics, and to prove that he is the right man to lead a genuine and meaningful clean-up.