Nick Butler

Sport, as in other walks of life, has a funny way of only listening to opinions and evidence with which it agrees. A conveniently commissioned “independent report” will invariably appear to back-up a chosen view, while a coterie of loyal disciples will always be on hand to correct anything which deviates.

Last week’s letter sent by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to provide an “update” on their ongoing investigations into Russian doping was a subtle but classic example of this.  

The 1,000-word summary, signed by director general Christophe de Kepper and sent to all IOC members and Presidents of both International Federations and National Olympic Committees before being published online, sought to reassure how “firm action” is being taken in response to findings causing “damage to the credibility and integrity of sport”.

It comes after a month where, for once, doping dilemmas have been on the backburner as the IOC have struggled with fresh apathy over bidding and the stuttering race for the 2024 Summer Games.

We do not seem to have missed much while focusing on other matters, however, because there is virtually nothing new in the letter. Yet it still provides a revealing glimpse into the mindset of De Kepper and, consequently, his boss the IOC President Thomas Bach.

The major focus is on the two IOC investigations commissioned in the aftermath of the McLaren Report evidence that 1,000 Russian athletes were Implicated in the manipulation of doping samples at events including the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. One, led by former Swiss Confederation President Samuel Schmid, is addressing “substantial allegations about the potential systematic manipulation of the anti-doping samples”. The other, headed by Swiss IOC member Denis Oswald, is examining evidence “against individual Russian athletes and their entourage”.

IOC director general Christophe de Kepper, pictured, right, with Thomas Bach, signed the update letter ©Getty Images
IOC director general Christophe de Kepper, pictured, right, with Thomas Bach, signed the update letter ©Getty Images

It is clear neither probe is going particularly well. Nobody in Russia has coughed up to admit responsibility, surprise surprise, while proof of an athlete’s direct culpability appears equally hard to come by.

This, for the IOC, appears a major problem and we can therefore expect no firm resolutions for some time yet, while we also remain utterly in the dark as to what these resolutions will ultimately be. After all the IOC anger over how McLaren’s findings came out so soon before Rio 2016, it is looking more and more like the same thing could happen before Pyeongchang 2018.

It is notable that de Kepper largely adopts less combative language than in the angry exchanges, open warfare even, between IOC top brass and those from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) last year. WADA, who commissioned the McLaren Report, also replied in kind with a bland statement significant only for its conciliatory manner.

But tensions and disagreements clearly remain.

The work of the Oswald Commission and of the IFs is “not easy”, De Kepper writes, because the mandate of the McLaren Report did “not involve any authority to bring Anti-Doping Rule Violation cases against individual athletes.” Schmid’s group face an equally “considerable” task because, “…for instance, Professor [Richard] McLaren describes a ‘state sponsored system’ while in the final full report in December he described an ‘institutional conspiracy.’” For good measure, we are then reminded how the IOC has “made proposals for more accountability, transparency and diversity” in WADA.

As ever with the IOC, the devil is in the detail. And my impression is that de Kepper is still not quite sure who the devil is: those involved in the doping programmes or those who have conducted the investigations into it?

Winter sports have found out it hard to prove some of the McLaren Report evidence so far
Winter sports have found out it hard to prove some of the McLaren Report evidence so far

There are two things that particularly struck me.

The first is the stark difference in tone here from language used by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC); two organisations who, lest we forget, acted differently to the IOC in fully suspending Russia before the Rio Games.

Neither the IPC nor the IAAF suspensions have yet been lifted and, despite highlighting improvements, both organisations remain sceptical about how genuine Russian reforms will be. The main message I took from attending the IAAF Council meeting in Monte Carlo earlier this month was a sense of frustration with how Russia is still denying everything. Apparently, in private officials such as Sports Minister turned Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko are more candid in admitting problems, yet in public they are anything but, blaming everything on their favourite “Anglo-Saxon lobby”. Clearly, this is making the problem worse and the IAAF have insisted that Russia must either convincingly disprove all allegations or admit some sort of responsibility. De Kepper, tellingly, has not delved into this.

He also proffers no comment about the delays in Russian athletes returning their medals following the IOC’s retesting of samples from Beijing and London. We also heard no update in the letter about how helpful the Russians are being with the Schmid Commission.

On the contrary, some of his points really do come across as nitpicking. At one stage, de Kepper tells us how “WADA also explained that the translations used by the IP (Independent Persons) team were not adequate and was obtaining official translations of some of the texts.” I have been told that they were perfectly fine for the purposes of the investigation so why does it matter if they were not “official”? 

Russian Olympic Committee President Alexander Zhukov has claimed the McLaren Report evidence is
Russian Olympic Committee President Alexander Zhukov has claimed the McLaren Report evidence is "non-existent" today ©Getty Images

And, while semantics are important, our understanding is that the line “state sponsored” was only replaced by “institutional conspiracy” because the former phrase was interpreted in Russia as meaning a direct link to the Kremlin. This, of course, has neither been proven nor refuted.

A cynic would say the IOC are attempting to justify their actions last year; or lack thereof.

Given the lack of developments, you have to wonder why his letter was published for us all to see. De Kepper begins by explaining he would like to provide an update, “given the sometimes confusing public discussion”, so would it not have been better to keep all correspondence internal?

If we asked, they would inevitably claim they are being “open and transparent”. But, coming from an organisation renowned for taking decisions behind closed doors and then using their public session as some sort of ratifying politburo, this does not really wash.

Certainly, the response to the letter has been one of jubilation in Russia. "Regardless of what follows, it is already clear that the McLaren report was a political order,” senator Alexei Pushkov tweeted gleefully. “Too fast, too blurred, but then - as ordered.” Russian Olympic Committee President and IOC member Alexander Zhukov has also crowed today that the McLaren Report evidence is "non-existent".

This also allows Russian figures to make the same tiresome point claiming how similar doping problems and cover-ups exist in the western world. There are certainly huge doping problem in these areas, but this claim is still not true. Fancy Bears’, for all their effort, have not yet produced anything at all comparable.

But the most noteworthy theme of the letter is how the IOC - deliberately or otherwise - are still misunderstanding the McLaren findings.

What the Report proved is that there had been a systemic cover-up of doping in Russia. No samples analysed at the Moscow Laboratory can be trusted while it is clear that there was a orchestrated tampering scheme in operation in Sochi.

What McLaren did not ever attempt to do was prove the conclusive culpability of individual athletes. De Kepper, as shown above, does make this clear in his letter, but it does not explain the IOC’s obsession with “individual justice over collective responsibility”. In many cases, athletes were not aware of what was going so the focus should have been on the whole system behind it.

The IOC still claim to be keen to find out exactly who is responsible for the Russian doping system ©Getty Images
The IOC still claim to be keen to find out exactly who is responsible for the Russian doping system ©Getty Images

I still fail to understand the whole point of the Schmid inquiry. The IOC claim to be desperate to pin the blame on someone and discover “which individuals, organisations or Government authorities may have been involved”. But is this feasible? Are a Government body really going to eventually say, “you know what, you’ve got us, it was all our fault…”

As for the Oswald probe, clearly, they are not going to find conclusive proof against all 1,000 implicated. That is impossible when the evidence has been tampered with and, in many cases, destroyed. Surely they would be better off taking the strongest cases and working from there? Cases, for instance, where there is some proof of athletes being aware of their samples being tampered with.

It is worth remembering how many of those fought by the IAAF, IPC and by governing bodies like rowing and weightlifting have been successful so far…

Clearly, the situation is all unprecedented in its complexity and it is easy for us to sit back and criticise without knowing every detail.

Yet the IOC are still too keen to dispute McLaren and find problems and reasons why not to act.

If they really want to “restore the credibility and integrity of sport”, then they must take this as a golden opportunity to go as far as they can in exposing a major doping conspiracy and making up for their past apathy.

My impression so far is that this is still not happening.