Nick Butler

As my colleague David Owen has already made clear, sport has provided many golden moments to light-up a largely bleak 2016. 

At the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, for instance, we had the emergence of new stars like United States’ gymnast Simone Biles and 400 metres world record holder Wayde van Niekerk as well as a golden hurrah for old ones like Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps. Not wanting to sound smug but, Icelandic football and Ryder Cup golf aside, we Brits enjoyed a remarkable plethora of successes including Andy Murray at Wimbledon and Chris Froome at the Tour de France, as well as second place on the Rio medals table.

But from our perspective at insidethegames, the past year has also been a fascinating and unprecedented year in sports politics. 

Despite some highs, including the “marvellous Olympic Games in a marvellous city”, it has largely been a 12 months administrators would wish to forget.

Russian doping has very much been our dominant story of the year. My first overseas trip of 2016 was to an industrial estate somewhere close to Munich for the publication of the second part of the Richard Pound-headed World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) report on wrongdoing in the sport of athletics.

Clamour was mounting for the resignation of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) President Sebastian Coe, who boldly turned-up - sporting a “crisis beard” - and plonked himself on one of the middling rows for the press conference. We were told afterwards that Coe would "give an interview" afterwards and was duly caught-up in the closest thing to a stampede I have experienced in journalism as well over 100 enthusiastic members of the press and photography corps charged towards a tiny room, big enough for about five per cent of us, where rumours were spreading that the two-time Olympic champion was barricaded.

A bearded Sebastian Coe leaves the WADA press conference in Munich ©Getty Images
A bearded Sebastian Coe leaves the WADA press conference in Munich ©Getty Images

My travelling year ended 11 months later in a pizza restaurant somewhere close to Geneva Airport, which was bizarrely the only place in the vicinity with WiFi, in order to help my colleague live blogging on the second part of the McLaren Report. I ordered an orange juice and sat in the bar for two hours writing about coffee and fake test tube related drug-misdemeanors to chronicle the latest chapter in a remarkable tale of skulduggery which had now permeated across the entire membrane of Russian sport.

Another doping-related highlight was the IAAF Council meeting in Vienna where the All-Russia Athletic Federation was ultimately suspended from Rio 2016. 

It was there though where I had one of my lowest points of the year professionally.

We had precious little to report about on the eve of the vote and had spent most of the morning in a desperate and unsuccessful struggle to find a Council member willing to comment on the impending decision. In the afternoon I broke off from this task temporarily in order to visit a nearby bar to watch the England-Wales match at Euro 2016. Once it finished, I returned to the hotel and immediately bumped into IAAF senior vice-president Sergey Bubka at the entrance, who was just heading to the same bar to watch the Ukraine game about to begin.

“What happened to England?” he innocently asked. “It was fantastic," I replied with unprecedented and woefully premature enthusiasm before launching into a 10 minute explanation about the nuances of Daniel Sturridge’s last-minute winner.

When Bubka eventually escaped, I turned around to find three television camera crews and a gaggle of lurking journalists. “What did he say about Russia, what is going to happen?” they all asked.

“Er, he said 'no comment’,” I stammered, desperately trying to hide how I had neglected to even mention the issue.

Daniel Sturridge's winning goal against Wales provided a distraction from an impending Russian suspension ©Getty Images
Daniel Sturridge's winning goal against Wales provided a distraction from an impending Russian suspension ©Getty Images

In May, I was sitting in another pizzeria close to Euston Station in London having dinner with my sister when I spotted the New York Times story about how Moscow Laboratory director Grigory Rodchenkov had come clean about an astonishing litany of cover-ups and swapped urine samples at Sochi 2014. And so set into motion another six months of allegations, rumours and denials.

Probably my interview highlight of the year was sitting down with then-Russian Sports Minister, and now-deputy Prime Minister, Vitaly Mutko at the SportAccord Convention in Lausanne. “It will be a 15 minute briefing,” we were told as Mutko appeared flanked by an entourage of translators, security muscle and crisis communications advisors. Yet we were there for approaching 45 minutes as Mutko blamed every part of the world except Russia for all manner of wrongdoings. The crisis comms team were twitching increasingly nervously as Mutko ended proceedings by commandeering my notepaper to draw a complicated diagram - which I wish I had kept - supposedly proving his country’s innocence.

Our primary focus throughout has been on the response of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to the unfolding chaos. In what, with hindsight, appears a rare stroke of inspiration, I decided to ask IOC President Thomas Bach during the Lillehammer Winter Youth Olympic Games in February if he was worried about possible Russian doping at Sochi 2014?

"Why don’t you read the [WADA Independent Observers] report?" he replied, giving me his now-famous combative "you've asked me a stupid question" look. "The report says nothing about the 2014 provisions. I don’t know what you want to create here."

I enjoyed speaking with Thomas Bach during the Lillehammer 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games ©IOC
I enjoyed speaking with Thomas Bach during the Lillehammer 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games ©IOC

Be that as it may, his response here seemed far too slow off the mark - and this became an enduring theme of the year. By the time we had navigated June's Olympic Summit and a July Executive Board meeting following part one of the McLaren Report being published, the IOC were raking in criticism at a level unimaginable since the Salt Lake City corruption scandal of 1999. At his closing press conference in Rio, there was almost open hostility between the German and the incredulous mass of battle-weary journalists present. 

It does seem like they have listened to the critics in their responses over recent weeks. Bach may not have walked the walk but he is now at least talking the talk by revealing his "shock and inner rage" in an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, even if his answers do still come across more as those of a soulless lawyer than an empathetic ex-athlete. The IOC have certainly influenced the three winter sporting bodies who have stripped or re-allocated events scheduled for Russia in recent weeks and it will be fascinating to see what happens next. 

I've been lucky enough to go to many other fascinating places in 2016. Lillehammer for the Winter Youth Olympic Games, Vietnam for the Asian Beach Games and both Pyeongchang and Tokyo for future Olympic host city elections among them. But covering a first Summer Olympic Games in Rio was always going to top the bill.

There were many great sporting moments which I managed to watch, but from a non-competition perspective the element I will really remember was the daily press briefings with IOC Presidential spokesperson Mark Adams and long suffering Rio 2016 communications director Mario Andrada. 

The Washington Post claimed in an article at the end of the Games that he had the toughest job of anyone in Rio - and they were not far wrong. Some of his highlights included the line "chemistry is not an exact science" in response to why organisers were incapable of restoring the green diving pool to its rightful colour and his now infamous defence of Ryan Lochte at a time where we, but not he, had just learned that the Brazilian police were claiming he was fabricating his robbery story. “Let’s give these kids a break," Andrada urged. "They made a mistake. It’s part of life. Life goes on."

My abiding memory was of a colleague, Matt Slater from the Press Association, asking the same question in an increasingly exasperated tone on seven consecutive days. "How can 88 per cent of tickets have been sold but only half the seats in the stadium be filled?" By the end, it was "How can we trust anything you say about tickets?" 

Mario Andrada was one of the great unsung heroes of Rio 2016 ©Getty Images
Mario Andrada was one of the great unsung heroes of Rio 2016 ©Getty Images

But Andrada somehow managed to keep a smile on his face and just about stay afloat. And his honesty in admitting Rio's mistakes and apologising for them was refreshing in an age of public relations and spin. 

The most interesting moment was when I awoke one morning at 7am to immediately spot a Facebook message telling me that they thought IOC bigwig Patrick Hickey had been arrested at the Olympic Family Windsor Marapendi Hotel. Rubbing sleep out of my eyes, I fired off a few messages in the hope of gleaning more information before deciding that, yes, this was finally the moment; a justifiable reason to wake up my editor who was asleep in the next room in our insidethegames apartment. I grabbed a towel and ran next door and began the painstaking progress of whispering, "Duncan, Duncan, There's been quite a big story..."

He eventually woke-up and, understandably, seemed just as shocked at the sight of me wrapped in a towel standing at the foot of his bed as the news I was bringing. "Oh, just write it, " he eventually said, before rolling over and going back to sleep. 

It was probably Andrada's favourite press briefing of the week as virtually all the questions went to Adams alongside him. "Does it worry you that the abiding memory of these Games may be an IOC member getting arrested naked in his hotel room...?" being the highlight from one Irish hack. We then suddenly discovered that a Brazilian police press conference taking place at the other side of the city was being streamed live online. So we grabbed a volunteer to translate, who sat with her ear to the speaker in the noisy press room as we furiously scribbled down everything she dictated. 

It was thrilling stuff and it will be hard for this bill to be topped in 2017. 

The highlight next year should be the race for the 2024 Summer Olympics and Paralympics between Budapest, Los Angeles and Paris, with three Evaluation Commission visits in May and June building-up to the September vote in Lima. But in sport these days you just cannot predict anything, and who knows what will lead the way in 12 months time.