Nick Butler

A member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) communications team half-forced a smile at the end of the Executive Board meeting last week when asked if they were hoping for an easier end to the year.

“Fingers crossed, now we have hopefully sorted Russia, nothing else will blow up,” they said, probably more in hope than expectation.

Russia, it is fair to say, has certainly not yet been "sorted" while we have also now seen a European Commission ruling which could potentially lead to seismic changes in the structure of sporting governance.

Whoever said running world sport was easy?

To start with the doping decision, the IOC initially appeared to have engineered a “win-win” but are still teetering like a ski jumper who has produced a colossal leap but realised mid-air how they may have misjudged the landing.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that they do not plan to stop athletes attending Pyeongchang 2018 in response to being made to compete neutrally has halted any boycott clamour, just about, but the country is furious nonetheless.

It would have almost suited the IOC better if Putin had waited a couple more days before making his proclamation because coming so soon made it seem too much like a deal.

Cynicism from those on the other side of the fence has grown throughout the week.

Many anti-doping figures are briefing privately how, for all its 18 months of work, the IOCs Schmid Commission revealed nothing that was not discovered in two months by Richard McLaren and the World Anti-Doping Agency the previous year. Others bemoan how compromises such as Russian ice hockey and curling teams, the name “Olympic Athletes from Russia” rather than "Independent Olympic Athletes" and the provision for Russians to march and receive medals under their own flag at the Closing Ceremony are all steps too far given the scale of the cheating.

Have the IOC compromised too much by potentially allowing the Russian flag in the Closing Ceremony ©Getty Images
Have the IOC compromised too much by potentially allowing the Russian flag in the Closing Ceremony ©Getty Images

Dagmar Freitag, until recently the longstanding head of the Sports Committee in the German Parliament, told ZDF over the weekend that the IOC and its President Thomas Bach lack “ethical values” and that their resolution regarding Russia were “not worth the paper on which it was written”.

I think this is a little harsh. Yes, the IOC and Russia presumably did broker a secret compromise of some sorts, but it was a uniquely complex situation with an unprecedented amount at stake. It also cannot really be said that Russia received only a slap on the wrist because - fudge or no fudge - they have still been made to compete under a neutral flag at an Olympic Games…which is a pretty big and humiliating deal.

That said, there are still a lot of IOC decisions still to be made, and these will be crucial.

Most of these will be determined by one of two Commissions - sound familiar? - although, on this occasion, they will be chaired by two women in France’s Valérie Fourneyron and Aruba’s Nicole Hoevertsz rather than two Swiss men.

Fourneyron, the chair of the Independent Testing Authority, will lead a panel evaluating the cases of individual Russian athletes to assess whether they can form part of the “Olympic Team from Russia”.

The criteria she uses will be crucial. Will athletes be allowed to compete so long as they have not been directly proven of a doping offence, or will they take the opposite approach and presume guilt until proven innocent?

This could determine whether as many as 100 or as few as 10 Russian athletes compete.

Given how the case at hand involved tampering and the “systemic manipulation”, as the IOC describe it, of an anti-doping system, then surely the latter? It is worth remembering how long jumper Darya Klishina, the one Russian athletics competitor deemed eligible to compete neutrally at Rio 2016, was permitted to do so by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) despite being implicated in three separate doping cases in the McLaren Report.

Valérie Fourneyron is already receiving online abuse for supposedly being
Valérie Fourneyron is already receiving online abuse for supposedly being "anti-Russian" ©WADA

It would make a mockery of the decision and further harm the integrity of the Olympic Games if Russians are allowed to compete who are subsequently linked to doping - either in Pyeongchang or in the past.

IOC Executive Board member Hoevertsz, meanwhile, is charged with assessing the finer details defining how exactly Russian athletes will participate.

There appear some obvious lines which must be drawn here. Surely the name “Olympic Athletes from Russia” should not be on the uniform of team members - “OAR” is borderline - and commentators and stadium announcers should be advised to make clear they are neutral rather than Russian athletes. And what about the question of spectators bringing flags and other national symbols into venues? This would be hard to police but surely should be banned to avoid athletes ending up celebrating with their own flags?

If they are going to make Russia compete neutrally, they must do it properly and not in a halfhearted way.

And what exactly does Russia have to do to have “fully respected” the IOC decision to a level necessary for the suspension to be lifted before the Closing Ceremony. Bach made it pretty clear that no admission was required and implied that disqualified athletes do not even need to return medals for it to happen. Can they constantly criticise the IOC and deny any wrongdoing every day until February 25 and still face no repercussions?

This also seems a step too far.

There has been a notable upsurge in vitriol by Russian trolls on social media directed against Hoevertsz and, especially, Fourneyron in the last 24 hours in an attempt to highlight their "bias" and anti-Russian tendencies. A similar strategy, perhaps, to a football manager accusing a referee of being lenient against the opposing team before a match.

The anti-doping lobby, I understand, is likely to attempt to force similar pressure in the opposite direction.

There were several journalists who were a little bit wistful in Lausanne last week that the long-running Russian saga was “over” but, on reflection, it has at least another four months to run, and probably more.

If we are not writing about Russian doping, then the fallout from the European Commission ruling against the International Skating Union (ISU) last week could be just as important in the long-term.

Mark Tuitert, one of the Dutch speed skaters involved in the legal case, pictured racing at Sochi 2014 ©Getty Images
Mark Tuitert, one of the Dutch speed skaters involved in the legal case, pictured racing at Sochi 2014 ©Getty Images

I must admit that the mere phrase “European Law” is enough for me to wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night remembering a particularly horrible module I attempted to do on the subject at university. In that, we studied the “Bosman Ruling” and the revolutionary impact this 1995 verdict had on football transfers and the wider movement of sportspeople.

Every article on the ISU decision, including ours, has included the phrase “most important legal verdict in European sport since Bosman”. In short, the case arose after top Dutch speed skaters Mark Tuitert and Niels Kerstholt were barred from competing in a prestigious and financially lucrative “Ice Derby” in Dubai as it was an unsanctioned event. ISU rules stipulated that, in the most extreme case, a lifetime ban could be issued for such a breach.

The ISU claimed this was valid for reasons of integrity, health and safety and fair play in sport. The European Commission, however. ruled this was an “extreme violation” designed to protect the ISU’s “commercial interests and prevent others from setting up their own events.”

Could this now open the door for a procession of athletes across other sports competing in similar unsanctioned events? And is this a good thing?

On the first point, it is notable that the IOC seemed uncharacteristically worried during last month’s European Olympic Committees General Assembly in Zagreb. They warned on several occasions how the “European Sports model is really under threat today”. Bach also made a brief foray to Brussels to address a Council of Ministers meeting about the issue.

When the verdict came out on Friday (December 8), however, the IOC then claimed that it was a decision related to a “very specific rule in one International Federation” and therefore not a precedent. Ben van Rompuy, the lawyer for the speed skaters, swiftly responded by pointing-out how Commissioner Margrethe Vestager specifically urged “all sports federations to go through their eligibility rules to see if they are legitimate and proportionate".

However, Vestager did also make clear that they did not want to deal with similar cases and urged sports courts to play a better role in internally brokering a deal. As the IOC claimed, she also “acknowledged that International Federations do play an important role.

Perhaps a bigger precedent here was that sports bodies can no longer prevent athletes seeking the most lucrative career possible for themselves given the shortness of their careers, and they cannot use the carrot of a ban from national teams or from international competition.  

It is interesting, but not unsurprising, that the IOC Athletes’ Commission or World Olympians Association have not been celebrating this decision. They seem very keen on athlete rights, but only when it fits with the agenda of their political overlords.

There have been recent cases in rugby union where athletes from some countries, including Wales, have been barred from competing for the national team after moving to a foreign league offering vastly improved salaries. Could they now consider an appeal to CAS or the European Commission if a compromise cannot be brokered?

A compromise was negotiated to allow rugby player Rhys Webb to continue representing Wales after transferring to French club Toulon. This seems preferable to a legal dispute ©Getty Images
A compromise was negotiated to allow rugby player Rhys Webb to continue representing Wales after transferring to French club Toulon. This seems preferable to a legal dispute ©Getty Images

It would be nice if the IOC and other bodies could just admit this was about power, control and money rather than sanctimoniously preaching about protecting the “social value of sport” and how it “is about so much more than business”.

On the other hand, I can understand that sports administrators must fight to avoid a “wild west” where greedy new leagues and events muscle-in to reap every commercial benefit. A situation where there are rival World Championships, like in professional boxing or darts, and different players restricted to separate events is not good for anyone.

Other disputes, such as the ongoing one in basketball between the International Federation and EuroLeague, are inherently complex and neither side is clearly in the right or wrong. One sport which seems to have achieved the balancing act fairly well is cricket, where players now juggle international careers with time spent playing in financially lucrative Twenty20 competitions.

It seems more likely that decisions over what constitutes a legitimate event will arise through delicately negotiated compromises rather than legal rulings.

As ever, though, this will be painstakingly complex. And can we just just hope it will not require a compromise involving uniforms, anthems and a possible lifting before the Closing Ceremony…