Liam Morgan

Global attention when an International Federation (IF) holds its World Championships is supposed to focus on the sporting action.

The event is supposed to paint a positive picture of the sport in question. It is supposed to allow for the competition to hog the limelight and dwarf any outside influences, especially those of a political nature.

Unfortunately for the International Biathlon Union (IBU), the start of their flagship annual gathering has been overshadowed by doping, with the McLaren Report once again looming over sport like a dark and protuberant cloud.

Anyone else getting a sense of déjà vu here? After all, 2016 was a year like no other, where sport attracted front-page headlines and garnered leading slots on news bulletins for all the wrong reasons.

More of the same then? It is too early to tell. But the IBU Word Championships in Hochfilzen, which began earlier this week, have been plagued by doping suspicions and responses to a seemingly never-ending crisis almost from the get-go, just as the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro were last year.

Before the biathletes had even lined up for Thursday’s (February 9) curtain-raising mixed relay race, news emerged that Kazakhstan’s team hotel had been raided by Austrian police the previous evening.

Authorities seized a "significant volume" of items such as drugs, mobile phones and medical equipment during their search, which was instigated after a dubious cardboard box was found outside a petrol station in East Tyrol last month.

Inside the package, which reportedly belonged to the Kazakh team, was allegedly a "considerable" number of used disposable medical equipment including disposable syringes, infusions and pharmaceutical phials, as well as handwritten notes, "indicating doping had taken place".

The Kazakh reaction followed the Russian river of denial, which has been flowing out of the country ever since the first World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Independent Commission report sent shockwaves through the sporting world back in November 2015.

Manas Ussenov, secretary general of the Kazakhstan Biathlon Federation (KBF), told Agence France-Presse of his shock and surprise at the raid, while claiming neither he nor the nation’s delegation in Hochfilzen were worried about the investigation. When the police get involved, you really should be - they knew what they were looking for and they found it.

His next quote was right out of the Russia playbook. "The only mistake made by our doctor was the use of remnants of medical equipment," he said. Blame the doctor. Sound familiar?

News emerged that Kazakhstan’s team hotel had been raided by Austrian police on the eve of the World Championships in Hochfilzen ©Getty Images
News emerged that Kazakhstan’s team hotel had been raided by Austrian police on the eve of the World Championships in Hochfilzen ©Getty Images

There is no clear evidence of wrongdoing at this stage and exact details remain hazy, but the issue further tainted what was supposed to be a glorious start to the World Championships.

From an IBU point of view, the event in Hochfilzen had begun on a slightly more positive note with the decision to effectively strip Russia of the 2021 edition of biathlon’s showpiece competition outside of the Olympic Games, bringing an end to a saga which has infuriated and irked followers of the sport in equal measure.

Finally, the governing body had taken action against a call which should never have happened in the first place. The vote to award Tyumen the 2021 World Championships last September defied orders from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and was a clear-as-day violation of the WADA Code.

IBU President Anders Besseberg was in danger of becoming a broken record with his continual insistence that the organisation had plenty of time to rectify the situation, particularly with four years to go until the event was due to head to the Siberian city.

In one aspect, he is telling the truth and makes a valid point. Winter sports, unlike their summer counterparts, have a spate of locations and venues which could host a World Championships at the drop of a hat. Their World Cups and other major competitions are usually held in similar places each year and thus a replacement would not be hard to find.

Yet the IBU’s rather blasé attitude signifies what many believe to be the root of the doping scandal - a lack of urgency. From WADA, from IFs and from National Anti-Doping Organsiations.

Critics of WADA in particular have continually lambasted the organisation for not addressing suspected systemic Russian doping much earlier on and some feel quicker action may have provided a platform for a much swifter resolution.

For what it is worth, the IBU deciding to seek an alternative destination for their 2021 World Championships has been largely praised. Better late than never, as they say.

But even the way in which the news was delivered shows weakness. Instead of stripping Tyumen of the event outright, they opted to urge them to give back the hosting rights by a deadline of February 24 or they would "annul" the initial vote to give the Russian city the competition, taken at the IBU’s Congress in Chisinau.

Yes, they essentially gave the Russian Biathlon Union (RBU) an ultimatum but the IBU would have been better to have followed the stance taken by the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation, who stripped Sochi of their 2017 World Championships and quickly handed it over to Königssee in Germany in December.

The IBSF, remember, were not blessed with the freedom of the IBU. The second part of the McLaren Report was published on December 9 - just over two months before the scheduled start of their World Championships on February 13 - and they therefore were operating under much more pressing time constraints.

The World Championships in Hochfilzen have so far been overshadowed by doping and the IBU's response to the McLaren Report ©Getty Images
The World Championships in Hochfilzen have so far been overshadowed by doping and the IBU's response to the McLaren Report ©Getty Images

Of course, the put-up or shut-up issued by the IBU was met with the typical Russian defiance. RBU President Alexander Kravtsov fired a stark warning to biathlon's worldwide governing body, telling news agency TASS that they were "absolutely against giving up voluntarily the World Championship". 

Kravtsov then insinuated the saga may not yet be drawing to a close as many of us hoped, hinting that they would contest the IBU's decision at the Court of Arbitration for Sport - who are surely growing tiresome of the deluge of Russian appeals - if the event is taken away from them. Much like a child holding on to his mother, desperate to grab her attention, Kravtsov is not letting go.

The IBU's plea to the RBU to return the 2021 World Championships hosting rights at the Executive Board meeting, held after an Extraordinary Congress, was not the only example of how Richard McLaren's report continues to lurk menacingly in the shadows. Ekaterina Glazyrina of yep, you guessed it, Russia, was provisionally suspended by the governing body after she was one of 31 biathletes implicated in the document.

What makes the case involving Glazyrina, one of nine Russian biathletes who remain under investigation, so interesting is the fact that the verdict was only delivered yesterday, merely hours before she was due to compete in the women's 7.5 kilometres sprint race. The fact that the ban came into effect immediately meant she would not take to the course.

The IBU's path to this point has resembled anything but a sprint. They have deliberated and discussed, scrutinised and analysed the McLaren Report at great length in recent months and could they not have provisionally banned Glazyrina long before she arrived in Hochfilzen? Did it really take until yesterday to come to a consensus?

After all, the IBU have already dismissed cases against 22 of the 31 Russians named for a "lack of evidence". Continuing to investigate Glazyrina surely implies her case warrants further analysis? If so, a provisional suspension amid the ongoing probe could, in theory, have been imposed weeks ago.

Russia seem to be unable to evade the negative headlines. Two of their leading biathletes - Alexander Loginov and Anton Shipulin - were involved in a rather unsavoury incident with one of the sport's leading names, Martin Fourcade, during the mixed relay medal ceremony, as they refused to shake hands with the Frenchman.

Russia were reportedly unhappy with Fourcade for allegedly stepping on the skis of Loginov when he was about to hand over the reins to Shipulin and the snub prompted the double Olympic champion to walk off the podium, before he returned shortly after in order to avoid an embarrassing disqualification.

Tension between Fourcade and Loginov, who served a two-year ban following a positive test for EPO, is nothing new. The Frenchman has taken an outspoken stand against doping - he backtracked on an initial statement last month which was critical of the state-sponsored programme - and publicly attempted to humiliate the Russian on January 31.

In an Instagram post from the Russian biathlon account to mark Loginov's 25th birthday, Fourcade mockingly wrote: "And he had a two-year ban for EPO! Do not forget one of his best trophy [Sic]."

Fourcade then took to Twitter to say he will speak his mind on the subject of doping in biathlon as soon as the World Championships are over. His opinion is certainly worth waiting for.

The IBU simply cannot catch a break; there is not even a semblance of calm within their pool of athletes, with the Fourcade-Russia dispute threatening to boil over into the rest of the competition.

The row forced the IBU to issue a statement via Twitter yesterday evening, which read: "We would like to remind and urge you to keep a respectful tone with each other and in your comments on all IBU social media channels.

"There is nothing wrong with discussing or agreeing to disagree on matters but we will and cannot allow or tolerate insults and derogatory comments to be or become the norm in what we otherwise know to be a respectful community of fans."

A reply on the Twitter post sums up the feeling of many towards the IBU. "You do realise you created this situation by handling things so poorly after the McLaren Report, right?"

Whether the focus will return to sport in Hochfilzen, as it should do, is anyone's guess. It is up to Fourcade and Co to do exactly that.