Liam Morgan

Barely five days after one organisation opened the door for a surprise Russian return, another warned it would be firmly shut on the scandal-hit nation’s chances of competing at Pyeongchang 2018 unless vast improvements were made.

The differing responses of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) respectively demonstrate sport’s continuing struggle to find the right response to Russia, a persistent and prominent issue which continues to dominate back pages and website headlines.

Ever since the phrase “state-sponsored doping” entered sporting lexicon, perhaps forever, governing bodies and International Federations (IFs) have often opted for differing paths when it comes to dealing with a problem that has rocked what many of us love to its core and made us question whether anything we see on the television or live at stadiums is genuine.

Both WADA and the IPC have been forced into action, and initially they were on the same page. WADA defied the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) recommendations when they called for a blanket ban on all Russian athletes at Rio 2016 following the first of the two-part McLaren Report last year. The IPC then went and did exactly that.

Now, however, WADA have seemingly softened their approach, insisting that the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) are well on their way to regaining compliance, perhaps as early as November.

The IPC, on the other hand, said at a news conference in London earlier this week that they were keeping the suspension of the Russian Paralympic Committee (RPC) in place for the foreseeable future, meaning the nation are in danger of being exiled completely from next year’s Winter Paralympics.

Admittedly, Andy Parkinson, the head of the IPC Taskforce overseeing the RPC’s reinstatement efforts, said progress had been made. But for the governing body, it is not enough. For now at least.

IPC Taskforce chair Andy Parkinson said he has not seen the required culture change in Russia ©Getty Images
IPC Taskforce chair Andy Parkinson said he has not seen the required culture change in Russia ©Getty Images

Ironically, in terms of WADA and the IPC, one depends on the other in the sense that RUSADA being declared re-compliant after nearly two years in the dark would help the RPC’s cause. Yet for the IPC and its President Sir Philip Craven, there are other criteria which need to be adhered to if the country is to be welcomed back with open arms in time for Pyeongchang.

WADA, led by another knight of the realm in Sir Craig Reedie, feel there is a gradual culture change in Russia. They believe that, behind closed doors at least, there is a growing shift in attitude from dismissal to acceptance.

Parkinson, the chief executive of British Rowing, is not so sure. “The evidence is quite clear: the problems identified were far beyond individual athlete violations and a doping system that was not strong enough to catch those athletes,” he said.

“Instead, the system itself and the institutions that support this system were operating with the objective of circumventing the very rules the system was responsible to uphold.

"Unless and until these problems are fully addressed, the Taskforce is of the view that there can be no meaningful change in culture, and it would be almost impossible for Russian Para-athletes to return to IPC-sanctioned competitions without jeopardising the integrity of those competitions.”

This notion of culture change, its definition and its permutations, remains the subject of debate and deliberation. A quick glance over the 100 or so comments posted on our news story following the IPC press conference on Monday (May 22) provides a clear example of this.

Sir Philip Craven and the IPC have refused to back down from their stance as they claim Russia has not done enough to deserve reinstatement ©Getty Images
Sir Philip Craven and the IPC have refused to back down from their stance as they claim Russia has not done enough to deserve reinstatement ©Getty Images

It is not the only element of this whole debacle, or “saga” as members of the WADA Foundation Board labelled it at their meeting last week, where opinion remains divided. Clearly, the IPC believe the evidence provided by McLaren is substantial enough to warrant maintaining their tough stance on Russia.

"The RPC and Russian authorities must establish new processes in order to right the wrongs revealed by Professor McLaren's investigations," said Sir Philip.

But WADA - who have already held their hands up and said the evidence is not quite as rock-solid as previously thought - and countless IFs are struggling to unearth findings which could lead to sanctions being imposed on Russian athletes prior to the Olympic Games in the South Korean resort in February.

The two IOC commissions which are conducting their own investigations into the shameful revelations are integral to this. The results, however, are not exactly forthcoming and who knows exactly when their reports will make their way to our inboxes.

The divergent viewpoints expressed by those within the sports movement remain confusing to many in the sporting world. How can they take different opinions on the same evidence? Surely it should be the same for all?

Unfortunately for those who have long urged sporting organisations to ban Russia from Olympic Games and other major events, it is not that simple.

It must also be said that Russia are clearly fighting back. They have reached their nadir and are ever-so slowly beginning to turn the corner. They have come to realise acceptance and adherence will pave the way to the absolution they so desperately seek.

The pending removal of Yelena Isinbayeva as chairperson of RUSADA is a key factor in their bid for re-compliance ©Getty Images
The pending removal of Yelena Isinbayeva as chairperson of RUSADA is a key factor in their bid for re-compliance ©Getty Images

In March, Russian President Vladimir Putin had admitted their anti-doping system had "failed", marking the first time he had publicly conceded they indeed had a problem. True to the Russian rhetoric, however, he still went on the defensive, waving away any suggestions of state-sponsored doping or an institutionalised conspiracy as McLaren had brazenly claimed.

The upcoming removal of Yelena Isinbayeva as chairperson of RUSADA will help, too, as will the fact that other requirements laid out by WADA are being met.

The Russian denial, packed full of hubris, has not been banished completely, though. Honorary IOC member Vitaly Smirnov, appointed by Putin to lead a Commission established to peruse over the allegations against the country, said the news the IPC were maintaining the ban filled him with “great regret and disappointment, because of the huge work of the RPC and WADA”.

Despite all the confusion, the IPC have not wavered in their belief that they are doing the right thing. Amid constant pressure from Russia and criticism from some that they took the “nuclear” option the IOC wanted to avoid, they have remained defiant.

It is for this reason, among others, why Sir Philip et al deserve credit. They could have easily buckled, allowing Russia a facile path to redemption. Instead, they have ensured it will not be a “simple box-ticking exercise”, as the IPC President neatly put it.

"They must put measures in place to ensure that we never see such a deplorable abuse of sport and athletes again," he said. Few can argue with that sentiment.