Liam Morgan

Richard McLaren could be forgiven for having a wry smile when casting his eye over the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruling on Russian triple jumper Anna Pyatykh.

After all, the prominent Canadian lawyer’s report, first published in July before the full scale of alleged doping in Russia came to light the following December, has been scrutinised, criticised and, in some cases, torn to shreds by those who doubt the evidence he presented.

Russians, sports lawyers and members of International Federations have remained suspicious of its content ever since it was unveiled.

I’ve even been told on several occasions in recent months that some Winter International Federations feel the explosive document is not worth the paper it is written on.

McLaren himself has been forced to defend his findings, especially earlier this year, when an open letter from International Olympic Committee (IOC) director general Christophe de Kepper revealed the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) - who commissioned the Canadian to investigate the state-sponsored doping accusations - had admitted its evidence might not be enough to sanction individual athletes.

Fast forward a few months and elements of that very same evidence have been used to ban an athlete for the first time.

The full CAS decision on Pyatykh, given a four-year suspension for doping offences by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), showed parts of McLaren’s findings helped punish the 36-year-old, which could set a precedent for others implicated in the damning document.

It could be a watershed moment for everyone who said the evidence was not substantial enough to bring about meaningful actions.

The CAS ruling on Russian triple jumper Anna Pyatykh added credibility to the findings in the McLaren Report ©Getty Images
The CAS ruling on Russian triple jumper Anna Pyatykh added credibility to the findings in the McLaren Report ©Getty Images

The ruling makes it clear that the findings in the report were sufficient to aid the CAS in forming a case against Pyatykh and delivers a warning to other athletes who may have been implicated in the alleged organised, coordinated cheating effort in Russia.

It showed it did not matter that she claimed to have no knowledge of being part of the "washout" scheme, where Russian competitors were tested unofficially to see if their samples contained banned performance-enhancing drugs in order to ensure they did not test positive the next time.

That has always been one of the main bones of contention of the report’s critics; how can you sanction an athlete when they did not know they were part of an orchestrated doping scheme? Is it fair to punish someone when they say they had no idea what was going on?

Judging by the ruling on Pyatykh, Russian athletes will not simply be able to use this argument and escape punishment.

"The Sole Arbitrator observes that the athlete offered no explanation neither in her written submissions nor at the hearing why her name ended up in the washout schedule nor did she challenge the credibility of the second independent person report," the CAS decision reads.

What was also striking about the CAS ruling was that it explicitly said the initial support of the report from the IOC and WADA - some of which has eased in recent months amid uncertainty as to some of the document’s validity - was used to substantiate McLaren’s insistence that his evidence could be proved "beyond a reasonable doubt".

In simple terms, the IOC’s backing for McLaren’s verdict was used as evidence in a legal case involving an athlete contesting a doping ban.

The CAS also dispute Pyatykh's view that McLaren’s "washout" analysis is inadequate. 

"As to the athlete’s assertion that the second Independent Person report is of no pertinence and 'lacks adequate evidential basis' as it does not comply with the International standard for testing and investigations (ISTI), the international standard for laboratories and other requirements for laboratories, the Sole Arbitrator reiterates that facts related to an anti-doping rule violation may be established by any reliable means including but not limited to expert reports and documentary evidence pursuant to Rule 33.3 of the 2013 IAAF Rules," the ruling reads.

The case is based on IAAF regulations, which may differ from other International Federations, but is still a potentially huge development in the protracted and never-ending saga over what the report means for Russian participation at the Olympic Games.

Last year it was Rio 2016, now it is Pyeongchang 2018. 

As John Fogerty sang, "It's like Deja Vu all over again".

Richard McLaren has been forced to defend his report amid criticism of the evidence he provided ©Getty Images
Richard McLaren has been forced to defend his report amid criticism of the evidence he provided ©Getty Images

Reaction to the CAS-Pyatykh decision has been largely positive from those who feel Russia has not yet paid for its alleged sins and from athletes sceptical about whether a playing field featuring athletes from the country will ever be a level one.

"It's reassuring to see the CAS use McLaren's report's evidence to confirm an anti-doping rule violation," one official told me.

"The months ahead will show the IOC's commitment to fighting for every athletes' right to compete in doping free sport.

"The clean athletes of the world are still waiting and watching."

This was also the message from United States Olympic Committee (USOC) chief executive Scott Blackmun, who called on the IOC to act urgently in an impassioned speech to the organisation’s Assembly in Colorado earlier this week.

Blackmun voiced the concerns of many when he said it was "beyond frustration" that nothing had yet come of the report, 15 months after the first edition was published.

"I believe the IOC is pursuing the findings of the McLaren Report, both in earnest and in good faith, and I believe the IOC when they say there will be consequences for the bad actors," the USOC official said.

"But at some point, justice delayed is justice denied, and we are fast approaching that point."

In spite of all the criticism, the report has largely stood up to legal scrutiny thus far, with the Pyatykh case only adding to the credence of a document which has rocked sport to its core.

There are some in the legal profession who still question it. One such lawyer is Ronald Katz, an American who has published papers outlining why "due process" has not been followed by WADA or McLaren and has continually critiqued certain elements of the report.

Katz seems to suggest that there is not enough proof in the report to stop athletes from competing. He cites Russians who were barred from Rio 2016 "without proving their guilt" as an example of what he perceives to be as an injustice, a view which mirrors that of the feeling towards the document over in Russia.

"Due process requires that there be an adversarial hearing before someone is punished, and that the burden of proof is on the prosecutor," writes Katz. "By the terms of the report itself, however, no athletes were proven guilty, yet hundreds were punished."

The CAS ruling could set a precedent for other athletes implicated in the report ©Getty Images
The CAS ruling could set a precedent for other athletes implicated in the report ©Getty Images

Katz, author of a new book Sport, Ethics and Leadership, also takes aim at the fact that 95 of the first 96 athletes named were cleared due to a lack of evidence, although WADA director general Olivier Niggli has already addressed the reasons behind this, claiming it was because there was no urine or blood sample to re-test and that the athlete was only named in an email.

Some of the cases had no negative sample at all, while others involved substances such as marijuana, which is not prohibited outside competition. 

Yet the fact so many were cleared is still used as a stick to beat McLaren and his report with.

Mind you, the Canadian has become used to that. 

For now, though,  he can look at the Pyatykh decision with renewed hope his findings will lead to significant sanctions in the fight against doping.