Nick Butler ©ITG

I felt a sense of déjà vu yesterday when attending a pre-Pyeongchang 2018 press conference with International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach.

It is a lot colder here than Rio de Janeiro and there is a sense of reassuring calmness around preparations here in comparison with the panicked chaos in Brazil.

But Bach was, once again, on the offensive against a leading sporting body.

In Rio, it was the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) for supposedly throwing the IOC under a bus with the timing of their McLaren investigation into Russian doping so shortly before the Olympic Games. 

Here it was the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) for last week daring to dismiss 28 of the 39 disciplinary cases imposed against Russian athletes for doping at Sochi 2014.

In fact, this was actually the third time Bach has launched such an attack after his - admittedly heavily provoked - assault on the Marius Vizer-led SportAccord in 2015.

The change this time, perhaps, was that Bach was attacking CAS only on grounds of their competence rather than in a political sense, yet the difference is slight and not immediately obvious.

He first criticised CAS for the way they have communicated their Russian decision, outlining the "extremely unsatisfactory" prospect of not receiving a detailed explanation until the end of this month. 

Thomas Bach, left, alongside former IOC vice-president John Coates, the President of the Court of Arbitration for Sport, a figure widely seen as a close ally of the German ©Getty Images
Thomas Bach, left, alongside former IOC vice-president John Coates, the President of the Court of Arbitration for Sport, a figure widely seen as a close ally of the German ©Getty Images

He then attacked the decision itself, implying that it contradicted the claim in the accompanying press release that they had "not made any statement on the systemic manipulation of the anti-doping system in Russia".

Then, most significantly, he drew conclusions about the need for change.

"This award could have a very negative fight on the future fight against doping," Bach declared. "We feel that this decision shows the urgent need for reforms in the internal structure of CAS. This means in particular that CAS has to change its structure in a way that can ensure and better manage the quality and consistency of its jurisdiction."

Substitute CAS for WADA and he was essentially showing the IOC’s commitment to sustainability by recycling the same script from 2016.

It will be interesting now if the IOC Session starting tomorrow will become another Bachean echo-chamber. Will the IOC hand around the usual slips of paper containing suggested speeches for some of its loyal acolytes to throw more fuel on their CAS-fire they started?

Will they even turn on CAS President John Coates, the IOC vice-president until last year considered one of Bach’s closest allies, in the same way they did with WADA counterpart Sir Craig Reedie in Rio?

Sir Craig Reedie was turned on by fellow IOC members in the Session before Rio 2016 ©Getty Images
Sir Craig Reedie was turned on by fellow IOC members in the Session before Rio 2016 ©Getty Images

I still cannot make up my mind whether I support or oppose the latest IOC stance.

On the one hand, Bach is correct and the CAS decision raises concerning questions, many of which we cannot really answer until we see the full verdict.

One key issue concerns the proof needed to bring about an anti-doping conviction.

"The standard of proof shall be whether the Anti-Doping Organisation has established an anti-doping rule violation to the comfortable satisfaction of the hearing panel, bearing in mind the seriousness of the allegation which is made," proclaims the World Anti-Doping Code, to which CAS is a signatory. "This standard of proof in all cases is greater than a mere balance of probability but less than proof beyond a reasonable doubt."

By claiming that they are not challenging the existing of a "systemic manipulation" despite their verdict, surely the CAS arbitrators must have felt the need to find "absolute proof". Coates, for the record, told me tonight that this was not the case.

Did they therefore violate the Code and could this be challenged on grounds of negligence in the Swiss Federal Tribunal?

A second concern surrounds the consistency of CAS decision and how they depend so strongly on the whims of individual arbitrators.

In the IOC cases, the judgement of several of the arbitrators can be questioned. 

One, Michael Geistlinger of Austria, spent 16 years at the International Biathlon Union, including in the position of secretary general between 2004 and 2008. He has also publicly criticised the "hearsay" McLaren Report beforehand and defended Russia's "accession" of Crimea in 2014.

Several officials within Winter International Federations have privately conceded that he is a well-known Russophile whose independence has been questioned before. Why, then, was he allowed to serve as an arbitrator?

There are many other more general issues with CAS. From a communications perspective, for instance, they are absolutely terrible, and we frequently find ourselves relying on secretary general Matthieu Reeb for explanations as there is nobody else to ask.

There are undoubtedly some elements of the Court of Arbitration for Sport which could be reformed, although you could say the same about the IOC ©Getty Images
There are undoubtedly some elements of the Court of Arbitration for Sport which could be reformed, although you could say the same about the IOC ©Getty Images

There is nothing like a crisis for forcing through necessary change and Bach deserves credit for showing passion and seemingly putting to bed once and for all the conspiracy theory that he was deliberately setting the CAS cases up to fail. 

And yet…these issues also raise questions of the IOC. 

The CAS Code allows for the choice of arbitrators to be challenged "if the circumstances give rise to legitimate doubts over her/his independence or over her/his impartiality". In a way, this is irrelevant, as the decisions made by the two groups of three arbitrators on Russian athletes were "unanimously" reached. 

But why did the IOC not mount a challenge against Geistlinger on these grounds? Or did they do so unsuccessfully?

Apparently, one successful appeal was launched against the arbitrators, but it was a Russian one against an IOC choice.

There is also the argument, not made by many, that CAS may have made the correct decision.

It seems likely that the 11 Russians whose appeals were unsuccessfully all had high levels of salt in their samples. This could only have been added artificially so was considered conclusive proof of tampering, and therefore doping. 

All the other evidence, including the testimony from whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov and the laborious analysis on test tube scratches, was seemingly ruled as either inconclusive or insufficient.

The scratches analysis, which was conducted in consultation with a Lausanne University, took months and months, remember, and delayed the whole process. So, if it is proven that this whole process was a waste of time, then it was an almighty blunder from the IOC.

The IOC are also in danger of sounding like every athlete who has ever complained and looked for excuses after losing a doping case.

But Bach’s attack on CAS was also unedifying for reasons other than the substance of what he was saying.

You cannot simply turn on an organisation because they have reached a decision you disagree with. Especially not an organisation you have repeatedly defended to the hilt as a vital pillar of the "autonomy" of sport.

The WADA Athletes’ Committee put out a statement last year requesting CAS to "improve and strengthen its independence and continually strive to increase the quality of its arbitrators". 

Barely had it popped into our inbox before the IOC responded through its Athletes’ Commission chair and vice-chair, Angela Ruggiero and Tony Estanguet, to attack this "misguided" position.

"We support CAS in its ability to fight for clean sport and want to reassure the athletes of the world in this regard," they said.

Do they still?

The WADA Athletes' Committee chaired by Beckie Scott was criticised by the IOC last year for challenging the
The WADA Athletes' Committee chaired by Beckie Scott was criticised by the IOC last year for challenging the "independence" of CAS, but now they want reform after being defeated there ©Getty Images

Even if they do find grounds to appeal the CAS decision to the Swiss Court, it  would arguably be in the IOC’s longer-term interest not to do so.

How could CAS ever be taken seriously again if it has been successfully challenged by the IOC, its own overlords?

I also think the last few days have shown us how the IOC have got their strategy wrong on Russia from the outset in comparison with the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and other bodies.

Okay, the IOC had less time and have at least tried to strip medals from Russians at Sochi 2014, something the IPC are yet to attempt.

But the IPC, like many other governing bodies, realised from the start that sanctioning individuals would be incredibly difficult given the intricacies of these cases, so they instead focused on a substantial collective punishment.

The IOC did not do this and instead put all their eggs in the "individual justice" basket.

They are still suffering the consequences.