Nick Butler

Richard McLaren’s report into Russian doping published in December was careful to always use the phrase "scratches and marks" when referring to the tampering of urine samples at the 2014 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Sochi. 

Samuel Schmid, the former Swiss politician spearheading the International Olympic Committee (IOC) investigation into the same evidence, went for the abbreviated "S&M" in his interim report published during last week’s Session in Lima. This is an acronym which, I can testify, delivers slightly different results when typed into a search engine…

Not for the first time, the IOC have here opted for a solution which may seem efficient but will create confusion when digested by the general public.

Information on the forensic analysis of Sochi samples was published on the IOC website in an annex to the Schmid report. It said that evidence provided in the McLaren Report was "designed to show the whole picture of organised manipulation and is not sufficient for individual anti-doping rule violations".

In an attempt to unchain this and whip it into shape, they teamed up with the Swiss Laboratory for Doping Analyses and the Forensic Department of the University of Lausanne to find proof strong enough to hold in the court of law. It took five months for them to establish a methodology for proving S&M but, after doing this, they are confident that a positive result will be 1,000 to 10,000 times more likely to be as a result of manipulation. A negative result, conversely, means it is 10 to 100 times more likely that they were not manipulated.

Pretty conclusive, then.

Unfortunately, this process is said to be extremely complex and requires at least 12 photos of each bottle, with each taking 10 minutes to set up. At current rates, only two samples can be analysed each day, even though the IOC has helped finance new staff in an attempt to speed up the process.

Forensic analysis of sample bottles is currently taking place at the University of Lausanne ©Wikipedia
Forensic analysis of sample bottles is currently taking place at the University of Lausanne ©Wikipedia

It is hoped this will be completed by the end of September. Already, however, IOC officials privately admit that it is likely to reach the same conclusions as those achieved by McLaren.

It then remains to be same whether they will be able to prove the culpability of individual athletes implicated, who will undoubtedly claim that they were unaware of what was going on. Denis Oswald, the recently elected IOC Executive Board member and chair of the other IOC Commission into Russian doping, insists they will be able to, for at least some.

It is worth reiterating that, if the S&M is confirmed, this would be worse than anything seen before on the Olympic and Paralympic stage. Yes, much doping has taken place in the past and, yes, failures have been covered up before. But to do this so blatantly and recklessly under the noses of the IOC, World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the watching world is unprecedented.

The details have not yet been given on the other side of the Schmid probe; namely the attempt to discover who is responsible in Russia. However, from what I can glean, the blame is currently being pinned on Moscow Laboratory director turned whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov more than anybody else.

Evidence has been found that officials linked to the Russian "state" were involved. This includes figures from the Sports Ministry, Federal Security Service (FSB) and, apparently, the wife of a high-ranking official in the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Armed Forced (GRU).

But they still believe what went on was state-assisted rather than state-sponsored. Rodchenkov, the mad scientist type-figure who is the star of Netflix documentary, Icarus, is seen as the instigator and operator in chief. He is, incidentally, apparently yet to speak to the Schmid Commission, although I am told that this could still happen. 

There is apparently no evidence that Sports Minister turned Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko or President Vladimir Putin were anything more than passively aware of what was going on. They were probably turning a blind eye but were not brandishing the whip themselves.

Vitaly Mutko is seen as someone who turned a blind eye to doping regimes rather than act as mastermind of them ©Getty Images
Vitaly Mutko is seen as someone who turned a blind eye to doping regimes rather than act as mastermind of them ©Getty Images

I must admit that, after watching Icarus, I did not completely trust Rodchenkov. The film clearly portrayed him in a positive light but never addressed the question of why he was happy to invite a camera-wielding documentary-maker into his laboratory in order to help him dope undetected. That said, I still found myself believing his central arguments and, in a political system like in Russia, I cannot believe that Rodchenkov was able to act independently from the powers that be. It also seems unlikely that he would be responsible for the decision to switch from merely ensuring athletes did not fail tests to directly tampering with samples.

Schmid, nonetheless, seems destined to rule that they cannot theoretically prove if this was a case of "institutional doping". A strong punishment, such as making Russia compete neutrally at Pyeongchang 2018, would thus be inappropriate.

The IOC are already taking steps to engineer this.

An unannounced Olympic Charter change was quietly approved last week to include a statute which allows them to fine athletes and teams for doping and competition manipulation. Australia’s John Coates insisted to The Australian today that it "wasn’t brought in specifically" to deal with the Russian question.

"Some of the International Federations, like FIFA, use a fines system and we also wanted one that could be invoked against non-compliant international federations or NOCs (National Olympic Committees) in lieu of other sanctions," he said.

Nobody has been fooled. Russia will be handed a large fine which will be, presumably, donated to the anti-doping industry in some form.

Other officials and politicians implicated will also be banned from any Olympic events. This will be trumpeted as a brave move but, in reality, is a rather meaningless one because most of those affected are already removed from the frontline and in no position to attend anyway. In the case of top former Russian Anti-Doping Agency officials Vyacheslav Sinev and Nikita Kamaev, they are dead.

Bach will use some of his stronger recent public statements, such as those given in an interview with the New York Times in June, to argue that they would have taken even tougher action if the evidence had been there, but are unable to.

The result will be a "win-win-win" for the IOC, Russia and Pyeongchang 2018. Crucially, it will avoid any prospect of a wider Russian boycott in February, something which, apparently,they have threatened if they are told to compete neutrally. South Korean organisers, incidentally, are also thought to be desperate for Russia to participate as they see them as a key means of keeping North Korea under control during the Games.

Thomas Bach, right, claims to be no longer close to Russian President Vladimir Putin but is seemingly seeking a
Thomas Bach, right, claims to be no longer close to Russian President Vladimir Putin but is seemingly seeking a "win-win" for both Russia and Pyeongchang 2018 ©Getty Images

Several questions remain here. The IOC have previously criticised bodies, such as the International Weightlifting Federation, which have used fines as part of a punishment but are now doing this themselves. It is also disputed whether financial or economic sanctions have any impact as a deterrent.

Also, if they cannot prove institutionalised doping, then how can a fine be justified? It remains possible that this may be mitigated by the sending of a letter by the Russians - although, no doubt, with IOC approval - going some way towards admitting responsibility for elements of what went on.

I still struggle to understand the phrase "institutionalised doping". What does this mean legally and what does it mean to the person on the street? The IOC, conveniently, seem to be adopting a strict definition and arguing that it constitutes something directly and absolutely controlled by the Russian Government. Others, I am sure, would view the phrase more liberally and argue that, if the Sports Ministry, FSB and GRU are all implicated, then it is definitely "institutional".

The scenario set-out here would surely be accepted virtually without objection by the wider Olympic Movement. It will go down far less well with vast swathes of the world’s public in key western markets where the IOC are desperate to revive their popularity.

In my opinion, the biggest mistake made by Bach and the IOC before Rio 2016 was not offering any sort of olive branch to their critics - such as allowing Russian whistleblower Yuliya Stepanova to compete at the Olympics - which suggested that they were prepared to take a stand. The likely outcome later this year is inevitably going to be interpreted by many as another example of the IOC prioritising pragmatic politics over a genuine anti-doping statement.

Anti-doping bodies are not exactly helping themselves after their latest, rather clumsy, call for Russia to be banned from Pyeongchang 2018 last week was criticised by both WADA and the IOC. They would be better off challenging details such as the meaning of the word "institutionalised" and the secretive way by which the IOC are going about making the decision.

For now, though, the IOC's behind-closed-doors decision-making style seems to be proving ruthlessly efficient once again. S&M notwithstanding, the Russian whip seems poised to prosper on the slopes and rinks of Pyeongchang.