Nick Butler

It was a very different performance from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) at the weekend when they met to determine North Korean participation at next month's Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, than when making a similar decision about Russia in December.

Back then, we all dutifully turned-up for a early-morning pre-meeting "mixed zone" outside the temporary IOC headquarters in the Lausanne suburb of Pully only to be kept herded away from the entrance as all the attendees were smuggled in through the underground car park. 

This time, it was perfectly choreographed for maximum publicity.

Thomas Bach was the first to arrive, the IOC President walking in alone as if he was on a personal mission to restore world peace. Each delegation then arrived one after the other in chauffeur-driven cars before being enthusiastically greeted at the entrance by Olympic officials they had spent much of the previous day with.

We were soon sent Bach's opening remarks. "As you know from the popular Korean folk song, 'Arirang', it is a long journey across the cold mountains," he said. "Perhaps we can inspire a modern interpretation of the song today, so that the next generations may sing about the snow-covered mountains of Pyeongchang, where flowers bloom even in the middle of winter."

Enough to produce a collective wave of nausea in our section of the media room.

The Olympic Museum had been the scene of one of Bach’s greatest lows as IOC President so far when he gave the impression of somebody who cared very little about doping problems when announcing the "Olympic Summit" decision on Russia before Rio 2016. 

Here, he was back in his comfort zone on the favoured topic of peace through sport.

He read out a short-statement and took no questions as he announced how the "Olympic Winter Games are hopefully opening the door to a brighter future on the Korean Peninsula".

A group shot of everybody involved in the Pan-Korean discussions at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne ©ITG
A group shot of everybody involved in the Pan-Korean discussions at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne ©ITG

An agreement was signed on a "replica of the desk used by Olympic founder Pierre de Coubertin" - cue more nausea - before Bach left while attempting to ignore one journalist shouting, "Is Kim Jong-un using the Olympics?"

Opinions were split afterwards over how much of a triumph this was for the Olympic Movement. It is true that this all happened due to one New Year's Day Address from the Supreme Leader - Kim not Bach - which was probably always in his plans. 

By waiting for so long, he has managed to receive all sorts of concessions from the IOC while giving the impression of being a diplomatic problem-solver.

And yet, as I wrote last week, the IOC also deserve credit for making the most of the opportunity while they have also benefited by being able to deflect attention away from Russia.

"Nobel Peace Prize beckoning," tweeted jubilant former IOC marketing director Michael Payne. "If this move can create lasting legacy in the Olympic Movement after 121 years of bringing the world together through sport, it deserves the ultimate peace accolade."

Aside from the fact that it is way too early to judge North Korean participation a success, there are several other uneasy elements. 

Firstly, why should one country be granted eight "additional quota places" - 10 if you include the two figure skaters who qualified by right but then missed the deadline for accepting their place - when there is no provision for any wildcard or "tripartite" slot in the Winter Olympics?

Secondly, why should one women's ice hockey team have a squad of 35 women when all others must have 23?

Does this comply with those other Olympic values of equality and fair play?

You can certainly argue that the benefits of the ice hockey decision outweigh the disadvantages, and that it is unprecedented and fairly amazing for North and South Korea to compete together on the Olympic stage, but it is an uneasy compromise nonetheless.

North and South Korean ice hockey players pose together last year after a match at the World Championships ©Getty Images
North and South Korean ice hockey players pose together last year after a match at the World Championships ©Getty Images

"From a global world peace perspective if the two countries can broker peace through these talks and the composition of the women's team, then great," said IOC member and Canadian ice hockey legend Hayley Wickenheiser. "My only issue is [that] having the South Korean women's team make this last-minute alteration to their team composition, but not requiring the same of the men, is clearly not an example of promoting/supporting gender equality in the Olympic Movement."

The unofficial line seems to be that it was worth doing because only two countries - Canada and United States - really challenge for a medal anyway and South Korea stood no chance of reaching the podium. 

True enough, but what happened to that old saying about it being the "taking part that counts?"

This was never a saying which figured too highly in Russian sporting thinking when they were masterminding their medals table-topping finish at Sochi 2014 - and the repercussions are still being felt.

The IOC waited until nearly 8pm local time on Friday (January 19) to provide a 1,200 word update about their criteria, or lack thereof, for determining the eligibility of those hoping to form part of the "neutral" Olympic Athletes from Russia team.

It is an old PR trick to send an announcement out late on a Friday and to also "bury" it amid the furore of the Korea decision. I was swiftly admonished when pointing this out on Twitter by Christian Klaue, the IOC's most combative but sadly soon-to-depart spokesperson, who said that they would have been criticised whenever it was sent out before reminding me how they are a global organisation who do not just cater to western European time-zones.

Their press office, for the record, operates purely in Swiss working hours and the global approach seemingly excluded Russia, the subject of the update, for whom it was the middle of the night.

It is estimated that up to 200 Russian athletes could participate at Pyeongchang 2018 ©Getty Images
It is estimated that up to 200 Russian athletes could participate at Pyeongchang 2018 ©Getty Images

We have tried hard to give the IOC the benefit of the doubt over Russia. It was a difficult balancing act and we applauded them for at least going some way towards punishing the worst act of cheating in Olympic history.

But the compromise is rapidly becoming a fudge and, to many, a farce. "Classic IOC mumbo-jumbo," tweeted the United States Anti-Doping Agency, who are no longer making any attempt to mask their contempt for the organisation.

The Friday night release told us that 111 of 500 Russians proposed for inclusion at Pyeongchang 2018 have been barred, and more may follow pending additional drugs tests. Essentially, though, most of the remaining 389 will be eligible, which should allow around or just under 200 Russians to compete.

In fact, when you analyse all the quota places, some of which have been obtained by athletes already disqualified from the Olympics for doping, it is likely that there could be more Russian athletes in South Korea than at any Winter Games except for Sochi 2014, where they benefited from host nation quota places.

The IOC claim that those present will have undergone more stringent drug-testing than ever before but doubts still remain over the actual quality of this in some Russian winter sports.

The main issue here is how unclear and confusing the process has been. The IOC have, to be fair, been clear from the start that they are deliberately not publishing specific criteria for eligibility, as the International Association of Athletics Federations always have. It has therefore at least been a case of "transparent untransparency". They, however, have not yet given an adequate reason as to why. "It will become obvious," I was told. I heard no more, and while it may lead to them building stronger cases, it may not. 

It also does not seem fair on the Russians themselves. We have been told over and over again by the IOC how they have a right to a defence but seemingly this "fundamental right" does not extend to knowing the criteria they are being judged by.

The IOC have made a habit of sacrificing clarity for flexibility in recent years. They oppose having clear sanctioning criteria for governing bodies who fall afoul of anti-doping rules and they have refused to outline what standards the Russian Olympic Committee must meet to have their suspension lifted before the Closing Ceremony at Pyeongchang 2018. Even the Olympic Charter is a document which can essentially be bent in any direction the IOC leadership sees fit.

The IOC under Thomas Bach appears to pick and choose its transparency when it suits them ©Getty Images
The IOC under Thomas Bach appears to pick and choose its transparency when it suits them ©Getty Images

Transparency, like gender equality, is not a buzzword that you can bring out and celebrate your commitment to only when it suits you. It is something you must either respect all the time or not at all.

If, for instance, they banned any athlete to have worked with a coach who has trained somebody implicated in a doping case, one of many criteria proposed by a coalition of National Anti-Doping Organisations this week, many more than 111 would be ruled out. 

The Court of Arbitration for Sport cases against 39 of the 43 Russians so far sanctioned by the IOC starting today in Geneva will be key. There are all sorts of predictions doing the rounds, and I have heard speculation about scenarios ranging from Russia having abandoned the accused to their fate to the IOC being bound to lose any case which does not revolve around scientific evidence.

It will be fascinating to follow, but I would be inclined to put the IOC's Nobel Peace Prize on hold until we know the real legacy of their Russian and North Korean diplomacy on show at those two Lausanne meetings.