Nick Butler

I was planning to write about something other than Russian doping in my column this week. Honestly.

Alas, after another fascinating and topsy-turvy week of denials, ultimatums and revelations, it seems remiss to focus upon anything else.

A colleague remarked that it is all “getting as complicated and convoluted as Brexit”.

Brexit on steroids, perhaps. Anabolic ones…mixed-up into a cocktail with whisky and vermouth and fed through a mouse-hole in the wall.

The week began with more suspensions issued against all-but-one of the athletes attending International Olympic Committee (IOC) Disciplinary Commission hearings in Lausanne. This was accompanied by increasingly hysterical rhetoric coming out of Russia, as figure after figure attacked the “baseless” McLaren Report before insisting that they would refuse to participate at Pyeongchang 2018 if made to compete neutrally.

A Russian Investigative Committee then released the results of its own examination into doping problems and - surprise, surprise - concluded that ex-Moscow Laboratory director turned whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov was completely to blame. There was an interesting climb-down here as, for the first time, they conceded that the “Duchess cocktails” combining steroids with alcohol did exist, even if they were supposedly the creation of one man only.

Russian President Vladimir Putin then leapt into action, announcing that “the accusations of Russia’s alleged support for doping in sports may be linked with the upcoming Presidential elections…”

He blamed a large spectrum of figures largely based in the United States. "In response to our alleged interference in their elections, they want to stir up problems during the Russian Presidential election," Putin declared.

Vladimir Putin has blamed US-led election influences for the doping
Vladimir Putin has blamed US-led election influences for the doping "conspiracy" ©Getty Images

Russian public opinion seems to have turned decisively against the IOC in recent weeks.

Most members I spoke to at the recent Commission meetings and International Federations Forum in Lausanne were still at pains to point how there is only evidence against 30-something Russians, however, and many still attempted to compare the situation with other doping cases, including the ongoing American probe into Alberto Salazar and the Oregon Project.

On the other hand, there were also mutterings that the Russian tactic was beginning to backfire and that the stance of IOC President Thomas Bach was beginning to harden.

On Friday (November 10), we then started hearing talk of a “big announcement” which could potentially be a gamechanger. Rumours were spreading around the Royal Savoy Hotel faster than a sprinter after injecting a vial of stanozolol, and those in the know were becoming infuriatingly smug while not divulging information.

I sent a “pleading for information” text to a senior sports official and eventually received a reply which read simply: “Patience is a Virtue”.

This was a line I have rarely heard since childhood, where it was invariably accompanied by the proverb: “Virtue is a grace and Grace is a little girl who does not wash her face.”

Grace, it turned out, was somebody very clever who had managed to de-cypher the supposedly unattainable Moscow Laboratory database and transfer it into the grateful paws of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

This is amazing in itself, given how proficient Russia usually is at cyber-activity and controlling information, but It is difficult to know just how significant it will ultimately be. More information will hopefully be revealed at the WADA meetings in Seoul later this week.

Most media were equally divided over the weekend. In Britain, the Mail on Sunday screamed that Russia are “on [the] brink of total 2018 Winter Olympic ban”. The Independent, meanwhile, told us that “Russia is now likely to compete at next year's Winter Olympics despite doping concerns.”

Russian responses have been just as confused. Just days after announcing that they had secured the Moscow database and kept it away from Rodchenkov, the internal Investigative Committee performed a U-turn and announced that they wished to jointly examine the new information with WADA.

Others have lashed out at everyone ranging from the New York Times to Ilya Chernousov, the cross-country skier who finished third in the 50 kilometres mass start race in Sochi behind two team-mates now disqualified by the IOC, and has been accused by his coach of being an “anonymous informer” involved in the conspiracy.

So much for supporting “clean athletes” here.

Ilia Chernousov has been accused of whistleblowing against fellow athletes ©Getty Images
Ilia Chernousov has been accused of whistleblowing against fellow athletes ©Getty Images

In terms of the IOC response, I think there are two points which are worth making from the outset.

Firstly, while the IOC tell us over and over that they will only make decisions based on the findings of their yet-to-be-published Schmid and Oswald Commissions, you can be sure that Bach and his inner circle will a) play a key role in the finer details of these conclusions and b) have complete control in shaping the decision eventually made.

Secondly, the IOC will make this verdict based purely on pragmatic interest rather than any ideological point of principle. Bach’s main purpose over the last four years has been to shore up the stability of the IOC - be it through engineering a double Olympic awarding or by negotiating longer-term broadcasting deals - and he is not likely to move away from this any time soon.

The question, therefore, is to work out what approach is in the best interests of the IOC and its influences. Neutral participation appears the best compromise between a significant sanction and a fair option for individual athletes, but Putin has made it clear that they will respond with a boycott. To change that stance would therefore result in a loss of face; something impossible in election year.

Putin has also seemingly realised that an Olympic withdrawal in response to “United States-led aggression” would be a perfect way to rally the country behind him before the March ballot. By manufacturing an external enemy, he could unite the population and distract from domestic woe.

My view is still that if Russia are given the option to compete neutrally and respond by withdrawing completely, then, well, it is their choice and the Olympics would survive.

I do realise, though, that it is a little more complicated than this. Winter International Federations appear even more terrified of upsetting Russia - a key event hosting market - than the IOC. 

One, International Ice Hockey Federation President René Fasel, makes no hiding of his personal relationship with Putin and is ramping up pressure in public and private against Bach making such a decision. This is partly to protect his own sport. It has already lost players from the National Hockey League and now faces being deprived of those from the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League as well.

Pyeongchang 2018 signed their “Olympic Truce” today in New York City and are desperate to ensure the presence of a country that was so respectful of the “truce” when host four years ago that they invaded Ukraine midway through. This is partly to ensure North Korea stays on side as they would be unlikely to challenge an event backed by Russia and China. A Russian-less Games would also risk further harming something already struggling for spectators and support. 

What effect could this have on the longer-term Olympic brand?

René Fasel, left, is among sporting leaders who strongly oppose any sort of neutral participation for Russia ©Getty Images
René Fasel, left, is among sporting leaders who strongly oppose any sort of neutral participation for Russia ©Getty Images

On the other hand, a weak decision amounting to nothing more than a slap on the wrist will further harm the reputation of the IOC in the wider world and, potentially, deter both bidders and sponsors. It will also send out a significant signal that doping and cheating will go unpunished and that the IOC will back down in the face of brinkmanship.

They also risk permitting doping athletes to compete. Two-time world champion weightlifter Ruslan Albegov moaned to Sputnik last month that they are “suffering for people who have already been punished for their doping violations committed five or 10 years ago”. 

It was announced today that he himself had been suspended for doping.

It is, therefore, an unbelievably tough decision for the IOC but one that will be made on the grounds of realpolitik rather than conviction.

The most thoughtful piece I have read on the Russia situation in recent days was by Andy Brown on the Sports Integrity Initiative website, entitled: “Russia’s athletes suffer for the actions of others”.

“The sad fact is that sport administrators and politicians know that they are almost untouchable, as sport’s governance structures only allow it to sanction sport,” Brown writes. “This means that if administrators and politicians are corrupt, athletes will suffer. The IOC, WADA, iNADO (Institute of National Anti-Doping Organisations) and others continue to sabre-rattle over Russia’s participation at the Winter Olympics. Meanwhile, the IOC quietly continues TV rights negotiations over coverage of Pyeongchang 2018 in Russia; and the 2018 FIFA World Cup marches on untainted.”

Surely administrators, including those that turned a blind eye like IOC member and Russian Olympic Committee President Alexander Zhukov, should face a more biting sanction? Or what about their Chef de Mission in Sochi, Alexander Kravtsov, who, as President of the Russia Biathlon Union, still declared as recently as last year that the sport was “free of doping” in Russia despite a never-ending stream of scandals?

Brexit, on reflection, seems mere child’s play to deal with in comparison with the decision the IOC must make next month.

And to think they hoped that the worst was over before Rio 2016 and that their eventual decision would be much easier.