Nick Butler

The year is only a week old but already we have had several fascinating developments in a Russian doping saga which dominated the sporting landscape in 2015 and 2016 and is set to do the same in 2017.

First up, we had a United States Government report - conducted by a triumvirate of intelligence big hitters in the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and The National Security Agency - which concluded that alleged Russian interference in November’s American Presidential Election was a means to avenge the "US-directed" doping scandal.

Then we had the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation’s (IBSF) as-of-yet difficult to interpret decision to lift provisional suspensions given to four Russian sliders found by the McLaren investigation to have had doping samples "manipulated" at Sochi 2014.

Nothing was new in the US report and, indeed, many have pointed-out that this conclusion could and should have been made months ago before the election. But it further highlighted how sport is being further entrapped in a diplomatic duel framed as the "new" Cold War between West and East.

Sport, as far as Governments are concerned, is a vital tool of soft power.

Hosting events and winning medals is a way to project your country on the world stage, particularly if - as Russian President Vladimir Putin does better than anyone - you embark on a public relations drive to embrace and encourage athletes. It is also a way to shore up support domestically and to detract from economic problems. Second place on the Olympic and Paralympic medals tables at Rio 2016 helped in some small way to do this in Great Britain, for instance, at a time when the country was still reeling from the divisive impact of Brexit.

Both Vladimir Putin, left, and Barack Obama have certainly used sport for political purposes ©Getty Images
Both Vladimir Putin, left, and Barack Obama have certainly used sport for political purposes ©Getty Images

But, at the same time, sport has always been a forum for diplomatic point-scoring. It was through the original Cold War-inspired boycott years of the 1980s and it was again at Sochi 2014. There, US President Barack Obama opted not to attend the Opening Ceremony amid criticism of a Russian gay rights clampdown. He instead sent a delegation headed by two openly gay ex-athletes, tennis' Billie Jean King and ice hockey’s' Caitlin Cahow. International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach was among those to indirectly criticise the absent Obama during a speech in front of Putin in Sochi for "trying to score points"...

It is thus natural that figures in Russia and, to at least some extent, the US, will use the doping allegations for political purposes. 

The key thing from a sporting perspective is to avoid being dragged into this conflict.

"We have to partner up with the politicians who are running this world, and with international Governments," declared Bach in another 2014 speech. "To ensure the functioning of worldwide sport, we must be politically neutral but realise that our decisions have political implications."

But, when speaking to International Military Sport Council chief executive Olivier Verhelle about whether they would consider moving next month’s World Winter Games away from Sochi due to the doping allegations last week, I was told that they would remain put because they are a "non-political"organisation and they do not want to send a "misguided signal".

The key thing this year will be how much the sporting powers-that-be manage to rise above this political rhetoric and take independent decisions based on the evidence. Interestingly, this is something both sides of the debate are calling for - although the Russian side has different interpretations of what this "evidence" means.

During last month's year-ending Executive Board meeting in Lausanne, we were bombarded by IOC administrative staff telling us how they were going to take a far stronger stance now that the Olympics were over, and that they felt as "passionately" about sorting it all out as we did.

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach has delivered slightly stronger rhetoric on Russian doping in recent weeks, but his true aims remain unclear ©Getty Images
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach has delivered slightly stronger rhetoric on Russian doping in recent weeks, but his true aims remain unclear ©Getty Images

The rhetoric of Bach and others was indeed slightly stronger and there were also tentative signs of a stronger stance last year shown by the stripping or removal of events from Russia in several winter sports. These were individual decisions made by the specific International Federations in statements which were not exactly dripping with anti-doping passion. But they were taken as a result of the IOC opening disciplinary proceedings and Bach and others certainly played a driving role behind the scenes.

This must all be taken into account when interpreting yesterday’s IBSF announcement lifting suspensions against four skeleton racers, including Sochi 2014 Olympic men's champion Alexander Tretiakov.

After a lengthy introductory spiel citing the right to be "innocent until proven guilty", outlined in Article Six of the European Convention of Human Rights, a world governing body statement claimed that, while there remains "sufficient reason" to conduct further analysis into doping control tampering, "at this very moment there is not [yet] sufficient evidence against the athletes that would justify the provisional suspension".

In short, they are not saying that they have been found either innocent or guilty, just that they must be allowed to compete while the investigation continues. But this begs the question of why they were suspended in the first place? Anti-doping figures have expressed frustration. Tretiakov, however, also has a right to feel aggrieved as he missed one World Cup race as a result of the ban and has consequently tumbled from first to ninth in the overall standings.

Alexander Tretiakov was among four Russian skeleton racers suspended before having the ban lifted, but only after missing a World Cup competition which wrecked his chances of winning the series ©Getty Images
Alexander Tretiakov was among four Russian skeleton racers suspended before having the ban lifted, but only after missing a World Cup competition which wrecked his chances of winning the series ©Getty Images

As far as I can see, there are three ways of interpreting this U-turn.

Firstly, it is a consequence of the unprecedented complexity of the legal process. None of these bodies, especially not the relatively small-staffed Winter Federations, have ever dealt with anything like this before. And, as a result, the parameters are constantly changing and evolving. They may have taken the decision to suspend based on the best legal advice at the time, but the goalposts have now changed. It fits with suggestions that the two IOC probes into the evidence may not reach verdicts until the end of the year, rather than in January or February as initially hoped.

Secondly, as a result of incompetence, perhaps arising as a result of the unprecedented nature of the issue. The International Paralympic Committee, whose decision to suspend Russians from Rio 2016 survived a number of legal challenges, said that they advised other Federations not to ban Russia because their statutes did not justify it. It appears many of the Olympic sports do not have the same quality of advice and, while this may not be completely accurate or fair, they have given the impression of making things up as they go along.

Or… as some have suggested, there may be some deliberate deception going on. The IOC, from Bach down, are packed with lawyers, but their June decision to attempt to bar Russians from Rio 2016 who had previously served suspensions seemed certain to fail a "double jeopardy" appeal, as most of them ultimately did. It thus seemed legal madness to attempt it, unless, as some speculated, they knew it would fail so could wash their hands of the situation and say "at least we tried".

In a series of tweets yesterday, lawyer Martin McEvoy disputed the relevance of the human rights article. "Clearly [the] body's lawyers know precious little about human rights," he wrote. "Innocent till proven guilty applies to CRIMINAL law. This isn't. Second, internal suspensions are not a form of trial, fair or otherwise. Art 6 has NO relevance. This is Bach lawyering…spewing quasi legal mumbo jumbo to confuse the unqualified and cover them in taking political position they want to..."

A few increasingly passionate tweets later, he concluded: "I foresee BIG fudge on tampered bottles. Athletes will scream they knew nothing about it, and IOC won't punish…"

I do not know enough about law to add much to this debate and must make clear that there is no real suggestion that this is the IOC strategy at this stage. It will be fascinating to see how it plays out.

In his New Year’s statement, Bach claimed: "The unique power of sport to unite all of humanity is one of the most important things that the Olympic Games can give us in our troubled times. In a world where mistrust and uncertainty are on the rise, sport is a source of joy and inspiration for so many people, giving us hope that our shared humanity is stronger than the forces that want to divide us."

Despite all of sport’s problems, Rio 2016 showed how there does remain a lot of truth in this statement.

But, for this to remain the case, the IOC must genuinely address doping problems rather than attempt some political fudge. They may produce plenty of surveys supposedly showing how the Olympics remain as relevant as ever, but there are equally as many contrary suggestions that interest in sports like athletics is on the wane precisely because of doping problems and a consequent decline in trust.

Norway's Gerhard Heiberg, doubtless speaking with more freedom now he is in his last year before stepping-down as an IOC member, said last week that the organisation had been "naive" in their response to Russian doping.

I am not sure that you could ever call Bach "naive" but the next 12 months will show us once-and-for-all just how serious they are about tackling doping problems.