Nick Butler

Control, I have learned, is a concept considered particularly important in the Olympic Movement. 

This is particularly so in the current era of Thomas Bach and Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, respective Presidents of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC).

Nowhere was this more evident than at last week’s ANOC General Assembly in Prague.

Sheikh Ahmad was back on his throne after months in the sporting wilderness, in which he missed key IOC Sessions in Lausanne and Lima, as he fought a US Department of Justice probe, as well as problems back home in Kuwait.

He was "cleared" of wrongdoing by ANOC virtually before the meeting had begun, after a short and detail-free interjection from his ally, International Swimming Federation chief Julio Maglione. The 81-year-old Uruguayan had been named ANOC first vice-president moments earlier to replace Patrick Hickey. He received a lifetime achievement gong later the same day at the ANOC Gala Awards.

Bach then delivered a keynote address lasting over 50 minutes in which he addressed the issues of the day. There was some interesting and good stuff here but there were only two occasions where he sounded truly passionate.

Firstly, when he criticised "unacceptable calls" for a Russian punishment before their two anti-doping investigations are completed in a month’s time.

Secondly, when he lambasted critics who "live in silos" and "become aggressive of people who do not share their opinions".

It was followed by a series of questions, all gushing with unadulterated praise. It is likely that most of these were planted by the powers that be beforehand. I was indeed told that several of these spontaneous speakers were spotted meeting with IOC staff members from Olympic Solidarity the night before.

Control…over the agenda, the message and the decisions.

IOC President Thomas Bach pictured speaking at the ANOC General Assembly ©Getty Images
IOC President Thomas Bach pictured speaking at the ANOC General Assembly ©Getty Images

One question appeared to call for all members of the Olympic “family” to refrain from off-message public statements and to relent from ever criticising any sporting institutions. We interpreted this as a criticism of Saint Lucian IOC member Richard Peterkin after he said last week the organisation could appear "arrogant and aloof". Others suggested that it was more likely an attack on the United States Anti-Doping Agency and its chief executive Travis Tygart.

Either way, it all left a distinctly unsavoury feeling. Sport should embrace rather than attack its critics and, in my opinion, immediately cease all references to the Olympic “family” as it makes it sound like some sort of mafia organisation in which loyalty is valued over substance.

The ANOC week contained some good elements. The Gala Awards is becoming an increasingly smooth event and the World Beach Games, while smaller than initially hoped, has real potential and a good first location choice in San Diego.

Yet the meeting ended on another sour note with the blanket approval of a series of "resolutions" supporting anything and everything the IOC and ANOC leadership wanted them to. The agenda had been dry and barely scratched the surface of most of the key issues facing world sports today.

Canada, Germany, Great Britain, United States…all sat in silence and did not make a single interjection.

Even the topic of ANOC paying bail money to Patrick Hickey last year to allow him to return home from Brazil following his arrest in a ticketing probe was only mentioned when an eagle-eyed Caribbean delegate spotted that the sum appeared to have been removed from the annual accounts. It should still be paid back, we were then told, so long as he is cleared of wrongdoing. 

Sheikh Ahmad did not appear at the press conference afterwards. He had apparently got “too many other meetings…”

Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah had also seemingly regained his confidence at the ANOC General Assembly ©Getty Images
Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah had also seemingly regained his confidence at the ANOC General Assembly ©Getty Images

"A lot of people disagree with the way things are run, but we’re s***-scared to say anything about it," said one delegate, speaking “off the record”, of course. 

One misplaced comment can derail a career and end influence.

"We’ve raised some grievances privately with the IOC and also gone public with some," added another. "We find the private way has some impact while the public way just makes them angry."

Powerbrokers find it far harder to control those outside the Olympic Movement. 

This brings us back to Russian doping. This was the issue which dominated lobby and bar discussions last week more than any other.

An IOC press release bounced into our inbox on the eve of the General Assembly disqualifying Russian cross-country skiers Evgeniy Belov and Alexander Legkov - an Olympic gold and silver medallist – from Sochi 2014 for doping. This seemed significant and will presumably be followed by many other similar verdicts. Yet there was absolutely no information included as to what they are accused of having done and whether there is proof of their complicity. 

We will therefore only really know how strong the case is when the Court of Arbitration for Sport delivers its verdict - and we have no idea when this will be.

These individual cases are, in a way, less interesting than the broader sanction taken against Russia if the allegations of sample tampering, cheating and institutional-level corruption at Sochi 2014 are upheld. The rumourmill still strongly suggests it will be.

So how do they respond?

Virtually everybody has a different idea.

At first, it appeared that the IOC believed a fine would be a satisfactory punishment. This, unfortunately for them, was then made public in August to an overwhelmingly critical response. 

It appears likely that a financial sanction will still be included, to cover the costs of the investigation and perhaps to help fund the anti-doping effort, but the IOC realise it will not be enough on its own.

The disqualification of Russian skiers, including Alexander Legkov last week, left more questions than answers ©Getty Images
The disqualification of Russian skiers, including Alexander Legkov last week, left more questions than answers ©Getty Images

Individuals involved in the doping programme will certainly be sanctioned and banned from the Olympic Games, although, for many, this will be largely irrelevant as they have been already removed from their positions in Russia. I expect Russia will be banned from bidding or hosting certain events for a limited time, although I don’t expect they are particularly bothered about this anyway. 

It is still possible that the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) may be suspended in some way, perhaps like the Brazilian Olympic Committee was following the arrest of Carlos Nuzman, although this would be unlikely to affect athlete participation.

The compromise sanction, seemingly most popular with the anti-doping community, is to make clean Russian athletes compete individually under a neutral flag at Pyeongchang 2018. This would not restrict their opportunities but nonetheless deliver a statement that doping will not go unpunished. As we have written before, some IOC insiders are encouraging us to believe this could happen, although others are opposed.

Russia made it abundantly clear that they will boycott completely if made to compete neutrally. The level of vitriol has been ramped-up in recent days after the Kontinental Hockey League President Dmitry Chernyshenko threatened to scrap the planned season break to coincide with the Olympics and thus bar international players from participating. 

Chernyshenko’s comments are particularly laughable because he was the President of Sochi 2014. He was, therefore, responsible for the laboratory in Sochi, but he has never once commented on what happened there. 

It is a bullying tactic and the IOC should be criticising it with the same vehemence with which they slammed similarly "unacceptable" calls from anti-doping figures - but they still seem terrified to do this. 

Our biggest memory of Chernyshenko is of him running across the lobby of the Hilton Hotel in Buenos Aires in 2013 to hand his phone to Bach following his election as IOC President so President Putin could offer his congratulations...

Thomas Bach, Vladimir Putin and Sochi 2014 President Dmitry Chernyshenko, centre left, all pictured together, along with British IOC member Princess Anne, at Sochi 2014 ©Getty Images
Thomas Bach, Vladimir Putin and Sochi 2014 President Dmitry Chernyshenko, centre left, all pictured together, along with British IOC member Princess Anne, at Sochi 2014 ©Getty Images

Unless something changes drastically over the next few days, it is also expected that the World Anti-Doping Agency will rule next week that the Russian Anti-Doping Agency remains non-compliant with its rules. 

They have still not fulfilled the two key demands to apologise for what happened, or release key electronic records containing possible evidence of tampering.

This has no direct impact on the IOC verdict, but would indirectly make harder what is already an impossible decision.

Do they risk a fully-fledged boycott by Russia and its allies and an ice hockey tournament missing players from the world’s two best leagues?

Or do they deliver sanctions which, while undoubtedly dressed-up to sound important, will amount to nothing more than a slap on the wrist and thus further damage the IOC’s already battered reputation?

"This is our chance to show that we really mean what we say," said one IOC insider last week. But they are becoming ever-more firmly wedged between a rock and a hard place. And the tone of the meetings in Prague strongly suggested that they still value politics and pragmatism over principle.

One other solution which would perhaps work may be to sanction a far longer list of individuals than initially thought likely. 

How about anyone involved in signing the Host City Contract committing to the integrity of the Olympics? Or Chernyshenko - who is still a member of the IOC Coordination Commission for Beijing 2022 - for presiding over a tainted Games? 

Or even ROC President and IOC member Alexander Zhukov for not doing more to stop it?

This would be bolder. But the problem is that this would leave a gap to be filled by new and unknown Russian sporting administrators

Olympic leaders would thus lose influence and control…and you feel this is their biggest worry of all.