Liam Morgan ©ITG

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach was adamant the reinstatement of Russia would draw a line under the country’s doping scandal during his closing press conference at Pyeongchang 2018.

A typically-obtuse Bach was insistent that sport and the Olympic Movement could now move on from one of the most tumultuous periods in its history.

The German’s words, which came barely three days before the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) was welcomed back into the fold amid an acrimonious backlash, seemed premature at the time.

If they did not then, they certainly seem so now following worrying developments in the world of biathlon.

Austrian criminal investigators this week targeted the International Biathlon Union (IBU), raiding the governing body’s headquarters in Salzburg in connection with possible doping, fraud and corruption involving Russian athletes.

At the heart of the probe, which Austrian police confirmed centred on IBU President Anders Besseberg and secretary general Nicole Resch, are allegations that bribes amounting to $300,000 (£211,000/€243,000) were paid to cover-up positive tests.

The accusations, which echo those which plunged the International Association of Athletics Federations into unprecedented crisis, state the alleged wrongdoing covered a period from 2012 until the 2017 World Championships in the Austrian resort of Hochfilzen.

It is not clear if the 2017 reference refers to cases themselves or that athletes implicated earlier being allowed to compete there - thus giving Austrian authorities jurisdiction for an investigation.

Thomas Bach said the reinstatement of the Russian Olympic Committee would draw a line under the scandal ©Getty Images
Thomas Bach said the reinstatement of the Russian Olympic Committee would draw a line under the scandal ©Getty Images

The numbers reported by Norwegian newspaper Verdens Gang, who claimed the allegations say 65 doping cases involving Russian biathletes were concealed, starting in 2011, are particularly damning and suggest biathlon has reached its nadir.

There are critics in the sport who long saw this coming. Besseberg, who denies wrongdoing, and the IBU were consistently labelled as being soft on Russia throughout the entire state-sponsored doping scandal.

When I met the 72-year-old for an interview at the IOC hotel during February’s Winter Olympic Games in the South Korean resort, I put this to him and his responses were to be expected of a sports administrator under pressure.

“I will not say we have been soft - we have been correct," Besseberg told insidethegames.

“It is not right to say we have been soft and we have acted in the right way according to the evidence on the table.

“I have a good conscience that we have done the right thing and I think that people who know our system well enough know that we have zero tolerance to doping without any question.

“I have full confidence in what we are doing.”

Besseberg has also been among the sports officials to cast doubt on the reliability and credibility of former Moscow Laboratory director Grigory Rodchenkov, whose testimony led to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) investigation which culminated in Russia participating as neutrals at Pyeongchang 2018.

As it turns out, in a cruel twist of ironic fate for Besseberg, Rodchenkov’s evidence is what sparked Austrian investigators into action following a tip-off from WADA.

Austrian police say the alleged wrongdoing covered a period from 2012 until the 2017 World Championships in the Austrian resort of Hochfilzen ©Getty Images
Austrian police say the alleged wrongdoing covered a period from 2012 until the 2017 World Championships in the Austrian resort of Hochfilzen ©Getty Images

The Norwegian, who is not likely to return as President after stepping down this week while the investigation continues, also said he was of a firm belief that Rodchenkov should have been made to appear in person at Court of Arbitration for Sport hearings into Russian athletes banned from the Olympics for their role in the state-sponsored scheme.

Essentially Besseberg was saying Rodchenkov coud not be believed nor trusted. When I challenged him on this and reminded him both the WADA Independent Person report spearheaded by Richard McLaren and a separate probe from the IOC had fully backed the eccentric Russian official, he simply refused to acknowledge it.

This is symptomatic of the attitude harboured by some within the winter federations, many of whom have been accused of pandering to Russia in a bid to protect and maintain the revenue streams the behemoth country provides for their sport.

The IBU came in for fierce criticism from athletes and other sporting officials, including those within the governing body itself, for keeping their World Cup finals in Tyumen despite threats against athletes who spoke out against the Russian system.

A key reason for the decision to keep the event in the country was the amount of fans who attend the event - spectators equal ticket sales, remember - and the coverage it would generate around the world.

One competitor on the circuit sent a letter to both Besseberg and Resch, who has also relinquished her role amid the Austrian probe, which pinpointed a principle concern of competitors in the sport.

“By continuing to host events in Russia, the IBU is clearly showing that money is more important than the safety of athletes,” it read.

The current allegations against biathlon’s worldwide governing body unfortunately add credence to that theory. If bribes were indeed solicited in exchange for covering up doping test, it does not get any worse than that.

IBU President Anders Besseberg has stood down from his role as the investigation continues ©Getty Images
IBU President Anders Besseberg has stood down from his role as the investigation continues ©Getty Images

IBU vice-president James Carrabre appeared to pre-empt the governing body having further trouble with Russia last month when he warned to expect more cases involving athletes from the scandal-hit nation but even he could be forgiven for being taken aback by the latest development.

 Not only did the news of the Austrian investigation reaffirm the belief of those who feel winter sports have not been harsh enough on Russia, it also reminded the Olympic Movement of the dangers of a President holding his or her position for too long.

To put it bluntly, Besseberg has been at the helm of the IBU for around the same time as I have been alive. During his 26-year reign, he has been able to control and manoeuvre the federation in the direction he wants to take it. Of course, that does not mean he has been guilty of wrongdoing but the power he exerts opens the door for it to occur.

It is difficult to see how biathlon can recover from this. It is a shame in some ways because there are some good, honest people working at the IBU and the alleged actions of Besseberg and Resch means they will be unfairly tarred with the same brush.

To play devil’s advocate, perhaps this is the change the IBU needs.

Perhaps the IBU needed a line to be drawn under the current regime to move on from a scandal which has ripped the Olympic Movement apart and plunged athletes’ trust in sport to new depths.