Nick Butler

Russian doping is a subject now considered increasingly boring by many people.

It is a saga that has run and run since erupting late in 2014. After the flashpoints of the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Pyeongchang followed by the FIFA World Cup in Russia itself earlier this year, many hope the issue will finally soon run its course.

We often get told that, with so many other doping concerns to get our teeth into, we should give Russia a rest and focus on problems closer to home.

And yet the resignation of Rob Koehler as deputy director general of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) last week highlights how Russia remains perhaps the single driving factor defining the politics of world sport behind the scenes.

It has created, fermented and ripped wide open cracks between the International Olympic Committee (IOC), world governing bodies and those responsible for anti-doping and the current state of deadlock could reach another boiling point over the next few months.

Koehler's departure remains shrouded in mystery and all that we have heard officially is that he sent a letter to WADA President Sir Craig Reedie informing him of his sudden plans to resign. 

I have been told that tensions have grown between him and Sir Craig which escalated at the Athletes’ Forum in Calgary earlier this year and that relations have never been the same since. On the other hand, others suggest we may be getting carried away and Koehler may be maximising a planned departure for political purposes.

Rob Koehler's departure from WADA has reopened debate on Russia ©WADA
Rob Koehler's departure from WADA has reopened debate on Russia ©WADA

In comparison with some of his senior WADA colleagues, the Canadian was considered a hawkish figure on Russia. He has often been charged with providing updates on the issue but, more importantly, he had worked increasingly closely with the Athlete Committee as they repeatedly urged a harsh Russian punishment. 

Rightly or wrongly, he was considered by some to be responsible for strong views held by Athlete Committee chair Beckie Scott - a charge I am not sure about as Scott, a former cross-country skier directly affected by Russian doping, is perfectly capable of formulating her own views.

"Russia is not the only factor in these tensions," I was told. "But it is the most important one."

The IOC, if you can bear to cast your minds back, debated long into the night on the eve of the Olympic Closing Ceremony in Pyeongchang whether to lift their suspension of the Russian Olympic Committee. They ultimately decided not to, a decision considered unavoidable following two Russian doping failures during the Games, but then lifted it anyway three days later when the spotlight had shifted.

Nicole Hoevertsz, the chair of an IOC panel tasked with sanctioning Russia, then said it was time for IFs to "step up to the plate" and prosecute cases.

We have since seen one case in biathlon and others in athletics. 

From every other sport? Nothing.

Winter IFs seem to be burying the issue under as much snow and ice as they can find while the International Swimming Federation threw all allegations into deep water virtually as soon as they emerged in 2016.

Some of the smaller bodies are probably reluctant to press cases that they don't think they can win and it is possible that they are awaiting WADA assistance. Others simply don't care.

After numerous delays, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) published two reasoned decisions explaining their decisions to either sanction or clear athletes disciplined by the IOC for doping at Sochi 2014. 

We were told in early June that further cases relating to 37 other athletes would be trickled out by the end of July but have heard no updates since. It is not clear if the IOC and relevant IFs have been informed about cases which have not been made public.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport has hit repeated delays on publishing reasoned decisions on Russia ©Getty Images
The Court of Arbitration for Sport has hit repeated delays on publishing reasoned decisions on Russia ©Getty Images 

The IOC have also stepped up their wider campaign to return Russia to the international fold. 

WADA Executive Committee and Foundation Board meetings in Montreal in May became increasingly tense when sporting representatives, led by influential IOC member and Global Association of International Sports Federations chief Patrick Baumann, repeatedly urged the organisation to abandon their Russian road-map and declare the country compliant despite key criteria remaining outstanding.

Sir Craig and WADA director general Olivier Niggli stayed neutral and did not intervene.

Both sides have been engaged in mudslinging, but there have been subtle attempts to undermine those - like Scott and Koehler as well as past and present IOC members Adam Pengilly and Richard Pound, United States Anti-Doping Agency bigwig Travis Tygart and WADA vice-president Linda Helleland - who have stood firm. I have been told that the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavia-heavy WADA Foundation Board is too influenced by geopolitics and is biased against Russia, but most of their arguments seem reasonable.

On the one hand, the IOC are only responding to the criticism that they have themselves faced. But they do seem to be clamouring for Russia to return to the fold with a far greater zeal than they usually pursue anti-doping.

Bach also attended the World Cup final in Moscow and met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in another sign of the way the wind is blowing.

WADA compliance will presumably allow the International Association of Athletics Federations and the International Paralympic Committee to lift their suspensions of Russia. 

Of the two outstanding criteria, one concerns an acceptance of the conclusions of the McLaren Report conclusion that an "institutional doping" scheme did exist. Russia will never fully do this, to avoid losing face, but has gone some way towards doing so. It is becoming a rather nauseating semantic dispute and there is no point dragging this out too long.

Thomas Bach, left, and Vladimir Putin met at the Kremlin shortly before the World Cup final ©Getty Images
Thomas Bach, left, and Vladimir Putin met at the Kremlin shortly before the World Cup final ©Getty Images

The second point relates to the opening up of the Moscow Laboratory for WADA to fully access far more complete electronic records than what they have already seen in the Laboratory Information Management System they obtained last year, without Russian help.

If, as is claimed, there is genuine information which can still be accessed, to abandon this ambition and allow Russia to continue with their cover-up would show a complete disregard to get to the bottom of perhaps the greatest doping scandal ever.

An Executive Committee meeting in the inauspicious location of Seychelles on September 20 will mark the next battleground.

In the meantime, Russian influence is growing again in world sport. Steel tycoon Vladimir Lisin seems destined to take over as President of the International Shooting Sport Federation this year, unless an Italian barred from standing against him is successful in an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Uzkekistan's Gafur Rakhimov, a Russian passport holder who counts Moscow among his places of residence, is also seeking to become permanent President of the International Boxing Association.

An International Biathlon Union Congress in Croatia next month is also one to keep an eye on. 

Sweden's Olle Dahlin is the favourite to replace Anders Besseberg as President but is facing opposition from Latvian Biathlon Federation President Baiba Broka. According to the rumour mill, Russian officials are lobbying heavily for Broka as she will afford them a more sympathetic stance when the Austrian police investigation into alleged corruption surrounding Russia and the ex-IBU leadership is completed in December. We shall see.

In the meantime, expect more sporting bodies to begin awarding events to Russia again, following the trend set by Moscow being named host of next year’s European Beach Volleyball Championships last month.

It is certainly important to focus on the many other doping scandals affecting countries all over the world.

But the fallout of affairs in Russia is not quite over yet and a delicate path between genuine anti-doping and political expediency is still being sought.