Liam Morgan

If ever there was an image to highlight the current farcical situation the world of sport finds itself in, Alexander Zubkov being pictured at the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (IBSF) World Cup in Whistler yesterday provided it.

Just hours before, Zubkov had been stripped of the two Olympic gold medals he won at Sochi 2014 by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Disciplinary Commission in connection with evidence of doping and sample tampering at his home Games.

Not only that, but the Sochi 2014 Opening Ceremony Flagbearer, now the President of the Russian Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (RBSF) and thought to be a close friend of Vladimir Putin, was seen coaching other athletes under investigation by the Commission.

Sochi Olympians Alexander Kasjanov and Aleksei Pushkarev, who are facing the wrath of the Commission, raced with a banner which read "the truth is on our side" draped over the side of their bobsleigh in protest at the decision to strip Zubkov of his titles.

To add to the farce, Kasjanov and Pushkarev, who pleaded their case in evidence given via video link earlier this week, finished fourth in the four-man at Sochi 2014 and Zubkov's disqualification means they are in line for an Olympic bronze medal, unless they too are sanctioned.

With the evidence against the Russian bobsleigh and skeleton team stacking up - Zubkov is one of six athletes from the sport to be punished by the Commission - it would not be a stretch to suggest this could happen in the coming weeks.

While four skeleton athletes who were handed similar punishments by the IOC earlier this week were barred from competing at the event in the Canadian city, including reigning Olympic champion Aleksander Tretiakov and bronze medallist Elena Nikitina, the presence of Zubkov, Kasjanov and Pushkarev sent out completely the wrong message.

The presence of Alexander Zubkov at the IBSF World Cup in Whistler sparked controversy ©Nick Hope/Twitter
The presence of Alexander Zubkov at the IBSF World Cup in Whistler sparked controversy ©Nick Hope/Twitter

Here were three Russians at the heart of the doping scandal, which has plunged the Olympic Movement into crisis, freely competing and coaching at an elite-level competition.

Here were two current competitors and one retired athlete brazenly appearing at an event where many will feel they were not welcome.

Zubkov was technically free to do so in his role at the RBSF, but question marks have rightly been raised over whether this position remains tenable. In a strange way, him staying on would paint the perfect picture of the feeling in Russia towards the Commission and those who have criticised them for their institutionalised doping scheme.

It was another troubling saga in a week where confusion, rather than clarity, reigned over the Olympic Movement with the clock continuing to tick down towards Pyeongchang 2018.

Worryingly, this is not a new issue. From the minute the IOC convened the two Commissions to peruse over the lurid evidence in the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)-commissioned McLaren Report, athletes and the general sporting public have largely been kept in the dark.

Back when it all started, the IOC and its President Thomas Bach were adamant and insistent that the reports from the Commissions would be completed before the start of the World Cup season, which has already started but properly kicked into life this weekend.

That has not happened.

Admittedly, the evidence the IOC are dealing with is complex and as we are continually reminded, these are not your usual run-of-the-mill anti-doping rule violations. With this in mind, why set out such an unrealistic timeline?

The dates of when the results from Oswald and Samuel Schmid, who is chairing the other Commission, were continually moved and delayed to the extent where a new deadline was being announced seemingly every week.

This was not helpful to officials outside of the inner IOC circle or, more importantly, winter sport athletes. In fact, it has been a hindrance, adding to the uncertainty which surrounds the validity of the Russian competitors joining them on the start line at World Cups and other international competitions.

Results from the Oswald Commission have been continually delayed ©Getty Images
Results from the Oswald Commission have been continually delayed ©Getty Images

You could go as far as arguing that the confusion created by the IOC and Winter Sport Federations is being used as an excuse for the lack of action from certain organisations who are desperate not to punish Russia for their alleged sins. The confusion is likely to continue right up to the Pyeongchang 2018 Opening Ceremony on February 9.

It was hoped that drip-feeding the results from Oswald's Commission, rather than releasing them in one go, would help alleviate this somewhat but again this has not been the case. This came to a head this week when the International Ski Federation (FIS) cleared six cross-country skiers to compete at the season-opening World Cup, which began yesterday, despite being banned by the Commission.

A statement from the FIS, released on Thursday (November 23), said they could not provisionally suspend the athletes - as the IBSF did - as they had not been given the full "reasoned decision" by the IOC and the "operative decisions" could not be relied upon as conclusive evidence.

"[The FIS is] obliged to wait until the IOC Disciplinary Commission's reasoned decisions are submitted with details of the evidence relied on, before it can take further actions with the cases," the statement added.

The IOC, however, saw it differently. In a statement of their own, they questioned the FIS decision to lift the provisional suspensions against the cross-country skiers and disputed their claim, instead insisting they had indeed been given all the evidence and had the opportunity "to take part in the hearings".

As with the switch from "state-sponsored" to "institutionalised" when referring to Russia's doping programme, it boils down to a case of semantics. What exactly is the difference between the FIS receiving the full "reasoned decision" and having all of the necessary evidence to reach their own verdict?

In another twist, FIS President Gian-Franco Kasper told my colleague Nick Butler in Zagreb that attending the hearings and seeing the evidence was not enough and that they must receive the full reasoned decision. Confused? Me too.

Olympic champion Alexander Tretiakov was among those sanctioned by the Disciplinary Commission this week ©Getty Images
Olympic champion Alexander Tretiakov was among those sanctioned by the Disciplinary Commission this week ©Getty Images

The lifting of the provisional suspensions by the FIS has caused controversy but, in some way, they did not have a choice.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport had ruled when extending their temporary exile from the sport that they could not be kept in place beyond October 31 because they had not been charged with an anti-doping rule violation, leaving the FIS with no other option but to allow them to compete.

Yet the FIS clearly thought the evidence initially provided in the McLaren Report last December was enough to provisionally suspend them.

The FIS knew they would face a backlash for clearing the six athletes, including Alexander Legkov, who won a gold and a silver medal at Sochi 2014, to take part in Ruka. In their statement, they admitted other athletes would have "obvious concerns about competing against potentially doped athletes" from Russia.

Three of the six took to the start line in the Finnish resort yesterday, and those who harbour such concerns would have been forgiven for feeling a touch of relief that none of them won a medal.

Maxim Vylegzhanin, stripped of his three Olympic silvers by the IOC, finished 38th in the men’s classic sprint race, while Evgenia Shapovalova came seventh in the women's event and failed to qualify for the final. Belov, one of the first Russians to be sanctioned along with Legkov, was 31st.

If you listen to the familiar Russian rhetoric, none of these athletes have done anything wrong. According to Russian rent-a-quote Deputy Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, it is all the fault of the IOC and WADA.

The IOC and the FIS have clashed over the decision to clear six cross-country skiers sanctioned by the Commission to compete ©Getty Images
The IOC and the FIS have clashed over the decision to clear six cross-country skiers sanctioned by the Commission to compete ©Getty Images

"People have been so brainwashed that Russia is to blame for everything that nobody remembers WADA's responsibility, nor that of the IOC," Mutko told R-Sport.

"What were they doing there?


Mutko also attacked the IBSF for denying the four skeleton racers, including Tretiakov, Nikitina, Mariia Orlova and Olga Potylitsyna, the chance to compete in Whistler, ignoring the fact that Zubkov was allowed to be there.

"I was very surprised by the IBSF's hasty decision to suspend our athletes," Zubkov said. 

Unfortunately, his presence in Whistler was not surprising at all.