David Owen

I am going to stick my neck out here: like colleague Liam Morgan, I fully expect the Executive Committee of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to back reinstatement of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) in the distant Seychelles tomorrow.

Indeed, surveying the committee’s make-up, I would be surprised if the vote is especially close.

If I am right, then it is probably time to take stock of where this whole sorry episode in the perversion of true sport leaves us.

Contrary to what my Twitter feed suggests is popular belief, there is something at least somewhat positive to say.

First, what the Schmid Report describes as "the systemic manipulation of the anti-doping rules and system in Russia" was exposed and, we must assume, stopped, too late, but nonetheless a lot sooner than was the case in the German Democratic Republic and, indeed, other outposts of the drug-addled sports world of the late-ish 20th century.

Russian sports bodies, as well as doped athletes, have suffered consequences.

Only insofar as Schmid identified no "documented, independent and impartial evidence confirming the support or the knowledge of this system by the highest State authority" might it be argued, if you believe that a state-sponsored doping system was in operation, that anyone got off scot-free.

Russia, to be clear, has always steadfastly denied the existence of a state doping support system.

Second, the Russian anti-doping apparatus has been transformed and, it seems, imbued with the capability to operate about as efficiently as counterparts in other leading sports nations.

Of course, any system of Government that places such enormous powers in the hands of one individual would in theory be more than capable of overriding whatever anti-doping arrangements you might care to install with a minimum of fuss.

But it seems harsh to hold WADA, or any other sports body, accountable for that.

Third, a degree of justice has been meted out for past misdemeanours.

Many Russian athletes have been sanctioned; the Russian Olympic Committee was suspended (not for long enough); RUSADA has been ruled non-compliant over an extended period; senior officials have been singled out, including ex-Sports Minister, Vitaly Mutko, who has been excluded from any future Olympic Games.

Russia's former Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, standing, has been banned from the Olympic Games for life for his alleged role in his country's state-controlled doping regime ©Getty Images
Russia's former Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, standing, has been banned from the Olympic Games for life for his alleged role in his country's state-controlled doping regime ©Getty Images

On the other hand, sports leaders are now likely to be confronted by, and to have to engage with, legions of disillusioned athletes, many of whom - a point of no small significance in the social media age - are much better known and respected than they are.

Current or recent athletes, it is worth recalling, have always tended towards tough views on doping and dopers.

"On doping, we consider this to be the most shameful abuse of the Olympic idea,” said one Sebastian Coe, one of the first athletes to be invited to participate vocally at an Olympic Congress, in Baden-Baden almost exactly 37-years ago.

"We call for the life ban of offending athletes!

"We call for the life ban of coaches and the so-called doctors who administer this evil!"

Many athletes today would express similar views, and their integration into sport’s decision-making machinery, begun in West Germany, and continued via the proliferation of Athletes’ Commissions, leaves them better equipped than any predecessors to translate their frustrations into concrete actions.

That said, you do not require a particularly overheated imagination to postulate ways in which active athletes might be encouraged, or even put under pressure, not to rock the boat.

The consequences of what seems to be palpable and widespread athlete dissatisfaction with the handling of the Russia problem will be interesting to observe over coming weeks and months if RUSADA is reinstated.

Such an outcome would also demonstrate that sport’s control over its own domain remains far from absolute, especially where it is unable to present a united front.

With doping - a giant problem for sport, but also an issue that supersedes sport - it could hardly be otherwise.

WADA is, after all, a construct in which public authorities are 50 per cent stakeholders - and supply broadly 50 per cent of the funds.

The irony is that what we may see tomorrow, if voting is transparent, is representatives of sport voting for dilution of original reinstatement conditions while some public authority representatives hold out.

By doing so, of course, those backing reinstatement may be condemning future roadmaps for different transgressors to be treated as little more than a starting-point for negotiations.

The reality is that while sport has grown rich and powerful, it is nowhere near rich and powerful enough to lay down the law to a state such as Russia other than in the very short term.

Sebastian Coe, then the world's top middle-distance runner, had told the Olympic Congress in Baden Baden in 1981 that the IOC needed to be tougher on athletes and officials implicated in doping scandals ©IOC
Sebastian Coe, then the world's top middle-distance runner, had told the Olympic Congress in Baden Baden in 1981 that the IOC needed to be tougher on athletes and officials implicated in doping scandals ©IOC

Once the powers-that-be in Moscow had decided - or so it appears - that enough was enough and that, on the narrow issue of the roadmap, they were not going to a) accept the findings of the McLaren report or b) provide the desired access to the Moscow laboratory until after RUSADA’s reinstatement, it was always likely that they would find ways of influencing important opinions sufficiently to get their way.

The following three paragraphs from the Schmid conclusions may explain, I suspect, why this report, prepared with the luxury of time, is seemingly less unpalatable to Moscow than McLaren. 

"…the independent and impartial evidence do not allow the IOC [Disciplinary Commission] to establish with certitude either who initiated or who headed this scheme.

"On many occasions, reference was made on the involvement at the Minister of Sport’s level, but no indication, independent or impartial evidence appeared to corroborate any involvement or knowledge at a higher level of the State.

"This assertion is confirmed by Prof. Richard McLaren’s change of wording in his Final Report: in his Preliminary Report, he considered the existence of a 'State-dictated failsafe system', including the activity of the Moscow Laboratory operating 'under State directed oversight and control of its anti-doping operational system'; but, in his Final Report, he amended the wording to 'An institutional conspiracy existed across summer and winter sports athletes who participated with Russian officials within the Ministry of Sport and its infrastructure, such as RUSADA, CSP and the Moscow Laboratory, along with the FSB for the purposes of manipulating doping controls'."

On the second point, while, of course, it is highly desirable that information which may lead to the unmasking of more cheats is coughed up, it is hard to see what this has to do with the issue of whether RUSADA today is fit for purpose.

Sport - ie not just WADA - really must dig its heels in here and insist that if relevant data and samples are not made available with a minimum of delay, meaningful punishment will follow.

But I am not convinced that linkage with RUSADA’s current status is necessarily helpful or conducive to the delivery of quick-as-possible justice to athletes who may have been cheated out of medals or other rewards.

The real lesson from this ugly soap opera is plain enough: it is that the prestige and nationalistic fervour, as well as the megabucks, wrapped up in elite sport condemn it to be politics by other means, and not the amphitheatre of fairy tales, with virtue and hard work unfailingly rewarded, that some athletes would wish it to be.

I am not saying that is right; but that is the way it is.