Nick Butler

Richard McLaren’s 144-page report on Russian doping published last week was exactly what some sporting bodies have spent the past five months publicly calling for but privately hoping would never emerge: a smorgasbord of evidence implicating thousands of athletes which was damning yet also meticulous. In short, irrefutable proof that the world’s largest country was cheating not only to the level alleged, but to an even greater extent.

To us, this always seemed likely. But there did seem a wider sporting belief that McLaren was bluffing, or exaggerating, and would be unable to stand-up claims which had caused such a cataclysmic explosion of problems so shortly before Rio 2016. 

Now it is only figures within Russia who are still in denial. Sir Hugh Robertson, the new chair of the British Olympic Association, said today that, if they are prepared to admit wrongdoing and immediately begin a wholehearted process to reform, it should not take too long for Russia to be re-integrated back into international sport. 

He is absolutely right. But, unfortunately, while they may concede elements, it would be too much of a loss of face to admit the involvement of the Russian Sports Ministry, particularly as the Minister involved - Vitaly Mutko - is such an old ally of President Vladimir Putin from their shared days on the Saint Petersburg Mayoral beat in the early 1990s. It is much easier to dismiss it all as some sort of trumped up western conspiracy and, until Putin admits wrongdoing on some sort of level, it is virtually impossible for anyone else to follow suit. 

Forget state sponsored doping; this is state sponsored denial, and of the most systemic, coffee powder, mouse-holes-in-wall and duchess cocktails kind.

Russian Luge Federation President Natalia Gart described the McLaren Report as
Russian Luge Federation President Natalia Gart described the McLaren Report as "nothing but rubbish" ©Getty Images

The point is, sporting bodies are almost going to have to accept that they are not going to get a full act of contrition from the Russians and, either use this as justification for a stronger punishment or exclude it from their criteria for readmission. 

Sport has spent recent months locked in a civil war over who is most to blame for not spotting the Russian problems. The more important factor is now what happens next.

McLaren has provided the evidence and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) will continue to play a close role in overseeing punishments. But ultimate responsibility now lies with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and other International Federations.

I would venture to say that the strength of McLaren’s evidence shows that WADA’s call for a blanket ban was, with hindsight, the correct one. However, it was also such a complex issue with potentially hazardous boycott-inducing consequences that we cannot categorically say the IOC got it wrong.

But it was the whole way they handled it which was poor: the refusal to criticise Russia, the refusal to allow whistleblower Yuliya Stepanova to compete and the not-so-subtle attempt to blame everything on WADA and the conniving media thereafter.

I spoke to one IOC member last week who still claimed - before the McLaren Report came out - how we must remember that, save for media and athletes, "nobody really cares about doping". The inference here was that too hard-line a stance on doping would hinder more important political and commercial objectives for the IOC. Not only is this view completely ignoring favoured clichés about "athletes’ first" and a "zero tolerance" approach on doping", but it is also a very dangerous opinion considering how vast swathes of the western public is increasingly sceptical about the integrity of Olympic performances.

Thomas Bach has been criticised for his response to Russian doping but did speak more passionately and critically following last week's IOC Executive Board meeting ©Getty Images
Thomas Bach has been criticised for his response to Russian doping but did speak more passionately and critically following last week's IOC Executive Board meeting ©Getty Images

We had virtually no access with any Executive Board members last week save the body’s President Thomas Bach - whether this was deliberate or not, I am not sure - but the communications team were very happy to speak in detail about every nuance and likely conundrum. They insisted that, free from the shackles of Rio 2016, they would now come out with far stronger an approach.

On the whole, I felt Bach also reflected this during his closing press conference.

"Our successful anti-doping retesting programme undertaken together with WADA raises concerns with regard to some countries, in particular Russia, and to some sports, in particular weightlifting," he declared in his opening remarks. "We will have to consult with WADA and cooperate with WADA about this situation."

Two things here immediately struck me. For just about the first time, he had singled out Russia rather than plumping for a general comment about geographically-neutral problems. Secondly, he has on one, two, three occasions made clear how they will work hand-in-hand with WADA rather than on opposite sides of the battlefield. This came after Bach began the week by calling for an effective ceasefire between the two warring bodies when meeting with WADA President Sir Craig Reedie.

Bach was eventually asked about limitations on Russian participation in Pyeongchang in light of the impending McLaren findings. "I cannot speculate," he began in typically Bachean tones. "But if I may offer a private opinion..."

A private opinion? You could almost hear the shock-waves reverberating around the media room.

"If you would have an athlete being part of such a manipulation and benefiting in the Olympic Games, my consequences would not differ from the ones we took under my chair in the Disciplinary Commission concerning the Austrian athletes [found guilty of attempted blood doping] in Turin in 2006," he said.

"If an athlete or an official would be part of such a system, I would not like to see the person again at any Olympic Games in whatever function. Not as an athlete, as a coach or as an official. This, for me, would represent such aggravated circumstances. For me the logical consequence would be a life ban from the Olympic Games."

Thomas Bach spoke about doping violations by Austrian cross-country skiers and biathletes at the Turin 2006 Winter Olympic Games ©Getty Images
Thomas Bach spoke about doping violations by Austrian cross-country skiers and biathletes at the Turin 2006 Winter Olympic Games ©Getty Images

For Bach, this was almost as radical a step as if he had sprinted across the Kremlin, foil in hand, to lunge at a lurking Russian politician. Okay, let’s not get carried away but for the first time, in public at least, he was showing real passion and a genuine desire to punish Russia.

As ever, those not present showed more sceptical objectivity. "Wait and see what he's doing; the talking doesn't count," ventured one Twitter hack. This was true, and you have to wonder what really prompted the IOC change in language.

Did they know, or at least strongly suspect, that McLaren’s evidence the following day was going to be so strong that they had to change their perspective? With Rio now over, did they feel free from the burden of Olympic participation? Or have they lost patience with the Russian response to the extent that their loyalty has lessened?

The IOC statement following the McLaren Report was also worded more strongly in highlighting a "fundamental attack on the integrity of sport".

Two Swiss-led IOC investigations spearheaded by former President Samuel Schmid and IOC member Denis Oswald will now consider the evidence. Two elements must be considered. 1) How to sanction Russian performances at Sochi 2014 and 2) How to limit Russian participation at Pyeongchang 2018?

One key legal issue concerns whether you can punish an athlete whose samples have definitely been tampered with but - because the genuine sample disappeared - there is no categorical evidence that they doped. Bach’s Austrian example is interesting here as they never failed a test, although on that occasion at least doping equipment was found. It might be that the fraud of sample-swapping is grounds for a disqualification from Sochi but not enough for a ban from the South Korean Games. 

Clamour will surely grow for a Russian blanket ban in Pyeongchang but that is not a decision which needs to be made immediately. I would predict it as unlikely at this stage given how the Russian Olympic Committee have not been directly implicated, although the team will surely be hugely depleted of leading names anyway.

At all non-Olympic events, it must be the relevant IF which makes eligibility decisions rather than the IOC. This will have repercussions across summer and non-Olympic sport as well as, bizarrely, university-level competition. Russia is said to have pioneered its sample manipulation programme at the 2013 Summer Universiade in Kazan, which I find staggering in itself. Students across the world enjoy drugs and cocktails, but not traditionally of the anabolic steroid kind…

Kazan 2013, which was opened by Vladimir Putin, has been described as the testing ground for the sample-swapping scheme seen in Sochi ©Getty Images
Kazan 2013, which was opened by Vladimir Putin, has been described as the testing ground for the sample-swapping scheme seen in Sochi ©Getty Images

Winter federations must answer the most immediate questions, and especially the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (IBSF) given how their World Championships are due to take place in Sochi in February. Latvia’s skeleton team have already confirmed their withdrawal if the event is not moved outside Russia. Britain, United States and potentially many others appear poised to follow suit. It is a horrible decision for the IBSF given how they could face legal action for stripping the event, with Russia having already apparently spent large sums of money paying for equipment to be shipped in from overseas especially for the week-long competition.

Sometimes you have to do what is right rather than what is easiest, however.

Moscow Laboratory director turned whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov told the New York Times in May, remember, how samples illegally manipulated on the same Sanki Sliding Centre track proposed for the World Championships included skeleton winner Alexander Tretiakov and two-time bobsledding gold medallist Alexander Zubkov, who has since been elected President of the Russian Bobsleigh Federation. McLaren’s evidence seemingly supports these claims.

IBSF President Ivo Ferriani was appointed an IOC member this year and appears poised to soon replace International Ski Federation head Gian-Franco Kasper as the winter representative on the Executive Board. He is thought to be increasingly close to Bach, so is likely to consult him heavily before making a decision. 

The Italian's comments when announced as an IOC member in June are interesting. "What I want to bring is the credibility about sport," he said. "I believe in clean sport and in fairness and we want to help the Olympic Movement’s credibility get stronger." Now is his chance to do this.

A final call should be made by the IBSF Congress as it was they who awarded the Championships in the first place, but we all know that it is the Presidents who have the decisive power in sporting bodies…

At present, it is hard to find an obvious candidate most likely to take a strong anti-doping stand among the heads of the seven winter IFs. All have been reluctant to criticise Russia so far and all tied their skis resolutely on the fence in their statements last week (with the International Ice Hockey Federation still yet to even make one despite the revelation that female players in Sochi submitted urine samples showing male DNA…)

But, as Bob Dylan famously sang, times are a changing. Now that the McLaren Report has produced conclusive proof of Russian doping, Ferriani has a golden opportunity to deliver a firm statement. Bach, it would tentatively seem, has now realised how the goalposts have moved, so could even advise such a response. 

It will be fascinating to see how genuine his shift really is, and to what extent other sporting bodies follow his lead.