Liam Morgan

On July 19 of this year, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) told the Winter International Federations (IFs) in no uncertain terms that events should not be held in Russia following the publication of the damning McLaren Report.

It urged them to “freeze preparations” for major competitions in the doping-plagued country, such as World Championships or World Cups. It even asked them to “seek alternative” host nations to Russia. The message could not have been clearer.

But the weeks and the months ticked by and the expected deluge of events being stripped from Russia never came. The International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (IBSF), whose World Championships are due to be held in Sochi in February, and World Curling, who had chosen Kazan as the venue for its World Mixed Championships next month, remained silent.

Their inaction got the alarm bells ringing. Those bells were at their loudest last week when the International Biathlon Union (IBU) awarded their 2021 World Championships to the Siberian city of Tyumen.

How could they do this amid the stern words of the Executive Board, you might ask? Well, it turns out the IOC had reneged on their original stance by telling the Winter IFs that their initial ruling applied only to future candidacies for major events from Russia and not those bid processes which were already in motion or those which had already been given to the country.

There was no indication from the IOC that this was the case. Judging by their original statement, there appeared little wriggle room for them to backtrack and what they wanted of the Winter IFs appeared simple.

But backtrack they did. The IOC, represented by sports director Kit McConnell, met with the Association of International Olympic Winter Sports Federations (AIOWF) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) during the Rio 2016 Olympics, where they attempted to clear up the confusion they themselves had created, laying down the ground rules for rewarding Russia with events.

This was the sole reason why Tyumen was chosen for the IBU’s flagship competition five years from now - they had been given the green light to do so by the IOC and thus, according to Anders Besseberg, the President of world biathlon’s governing body, there is no problem.

Yet this is precisely the issue; neither the IBU nor the IOC can accept responsibility and admit to the fact that they handled the situation regarding the awarding of winter events to Russia poorly. They don’t see what they have done is wrong.

Yes, the IBU say they were following the advice of the powers-that-be over at the IOC, but they didn’t have to. The calls from the IOC in the wake of the McLaren Report were recommendations, and they could easily have gone above that and used information from the document to ensure Tyumen weren’t allowed to bid.

The IBU awarded the 2021 World Championships to Russia after they were given the green light by the IOC ©IBU
The IBU awarded the 2021 World Championships to Russia after they were given the green light by the IOC ©IBU

After all, it’s not as if they were short of candidates. Two other resorts - Nové Město na Moravě in the Czech Republic and Pokljuka in Slovenia - were in contention for the 2021 event and it wouldn’t have been difficult to rule Russia out and leave it as a straight fight between the remaining bidders. It was entirely within the IBU's power to do so and it would have been the correct course of action, but they opted for a different path.

Biathlon is a sport where World Championships are usually held in similar places and nations – Russia has held it five times since 1992, for example – as the infrastructure to hold major events is often already there, unlike summer competitions like the football World Cup, where vast sums are pumped into host nations in order to build stadia and facilities fit for the showpiece occasion.

There were other viable options, so why did their membership vote yes for Russia for 2021, with the doping cloud hanging over the nation continuing to darken?

Their decision has sparked intense criticism of the IBU and of its President, who has led the governing body for nearly a quarter of a century, with the most vociferous of dissent coming from the Norwegian Biathlon Federation (NBF).

President Erlend Slokvik’s opposition is significant for a number of reasons, most notably because the Federation he leads is not a minor one within biathlon - the sport is one of Norway’s most popular, therefore his condemnation of the IBU’s choice speaks volumes.

Slokvik made an interesting point when questioned about the subject by insidethegames. He says Tyumen being selected as the 2021 World Championships host allows Russia to think what they have been accused of - state-sponsored doping, manipulation of samples - is okay.

The IOC has backtracked on the original stance of the Executive Board ©Getty Images
The IOC has backtracked on the original stance of the Executive Board ©Getty Images

“We are really unhappy with this decision,” he said. “It sends a wrong message to the sport world about our attitude against doping and it gives a wrong signal to Russia.

“With this decision Russia still believe that what has happened earlier is accepted.

“There were several other countries who were disappointed over this decision.”

There were indeed. Sweden and Canada were among the others to queue up in the line of dissension towards the IBU, who have perhaps never been in the limelight quite as much as they have over the past seven days, albeit for less than positive reasons.

Both they and the IOC deserve the pressure they are being put under. In the case of the IOC, they should have followed through with their original stance; in the case of the IBU, they should never have chosen Tyumen.

To award the event to Putin’s empire is to fail to acknowledge the severity of the accusations and allegations levelled against them. Thankfully, there is one member of the IBU who does understand.

Newly-elected vice-president of sport Max Cobb, who was appointed at the body’s recent Congress, described the situation concerning Russia as the “worst doping crisis the world has ever seen”. The American, chief executive and President of USA Biathlon, then launched a scathing attack on the IOC, claiming allowing the IBU to give the World Championships to Russia had undermined the credibility of the organisation.

IBU President Anders Besseberg has insisted there is no problem with giving the World Championships in 2021 to Tyumen ©Getty Images
IBU President Anders Besseberg has insisted there is no problem with giving the World Championships in 2021 to Tyumen ©Getty Images

“I was surprised by the information from the IOC which was presented at the IBU Congress,” Cobb told insidethegames.

“It seemed to walk back the IOC's 'freeze order'.

“Since the IOC had not announced that publicly it seems to further undermine the credibility of their response to what seems to me to be the worst doping crisis the world has ever seen.”

He can’t be alone in his thinking. Besseberg, who also holds a key role within WADA - whose anti-Russian stance has been obvious yet justified - may continue to play down the affair but it doesn’t escape from the fact that the Tyumen decision was awfully-timed and has lowered the reputation of the IBU in the eyes of many within the sporting world.

Besseberg must be thankful he doesn’t lead a summer sport; imagine if the International Swimming Federation or International Cycling Union, for example, gave a major event to Russia in the current climate? Surely the scrutiny would be much worse - after all, there simply isn’t as much interest in the sports which make up the winter Olympic programme.

There is, perversely, a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel for the Norwegian. Should McLaren’s updated report, due at the end of the month, add further credence and weight to the original claims of state-sponsored doping, he and the other heads of the respective Winter IFs will be left with no choice but to do what they should have done in the first place - take events away from Russia and send a clear message of their own.

Would it be too little, too late? Maybe so, but at least they would be able to show they mean business. Actions, after all, speak much louder than words; the IOC's statement two months ago now appears to be little more than rhetoric, and it is up to the IBU to make sure they do not follow suit.