Liam Morgan

It is now 25 months since Richard McLaren laid bare the illicit Russian doping scheme as he presented his damning report at a press conference in London.

The headline figure from the Canadian lawyer on that dark December day in 2016 was that more than 1,000 Russian athletes from several Olympic sports were in some way involved in the orchestrated, systematic manipulation of the anti-doping system at major events, including the 2014 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Sochi.

Fast forward over two years and we are still some way from finding out exactly how many Russians will be sanctioned.

That number may have grabbed the attention at the time but McLaren himself admitted that punishments will not forthcoming for all 1,000 Russians supposedly implicated.

After all, many of those will be lower-level or amateur competitors, while others may have tested positive for recreational drugs such as marijuana.

If you believe United States Anti-Doping Agency chief executive Travis Tygart, the figure is actually nearer an eye-bulging 9,000, although plenty will be comprised of recreational failures, tests from amateur athletes and competitors who have tested positive on numerous occasions.

It seems this number is being bandied about to give those most ardent critics of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) a stick to beat the flailing global watchdog with when the actual amount of Russian athletes sanctioned falls well below that amount.

Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren said around 300-600 Russian athletes could be sanctioned ©Getty Images
Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren said around 300-600 Russian athletes could be sanctioned ©Getty Images

In a recent interview with German broadcaster ARD, McLaren suggested the number of doping cases will be between 300 and 600. It would represent a pretty considerable result even if the final tally comes in at the lower end of that scale.

Given the initial headlines and furore over the heinous acts committed by Russia at a host of major sporting events, some will, however, be disappointed.

The frustration of athletes denied their moment of glory by a cheating Russian is understandable, especially when you couple this with the sheer size and scope of the doping programme, which some believe Russia has largely got away with.

But the complexity of the cases, adding another layer of difficulty, particularly for the International Federations which will be tasked with pursuing sanctions once the data obtained from the Moscow Laboratory is verified and authenticated, should also be considered.

The trouble is plenty of these International Federations have shown a preference for turning a blind eye when it comes to issues which might damage their sport’s reputation, favouring positive public relations over rooting out drug cheats.

At its most basic, the idea of McLaren’s investigation was to do just that – find out who was implicated and bring them to justice, and it seems that fundamental element has been lost amid the back-and-forth in a debate doused in rhetoric.

The weak response of the likes of WADA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) - with their arcane rules which they trot out when it favours them - to one of the biggest crises in their respective histories has opened a potentially irreparable chasm between athletes and officials, between WADA and the organisations it is supposed to oversee and between those who have demanded unsparing consequences and those who have called for due process to be followed.

It has also exposed how the anti-doping system, in its current form, is neither strong enough nor capable of dealing with a problem on the scale of the Russian situation.

A meeting of WADA's Executive Committee will decide whether RUSADA maintains its current compliant status ©Getty Images
A meeting of WADA's Executive Committee will decide whether RUSADA maintains its current compliant status ©Getty Images

Unfortunately, it has also highlighted an alarming lack of balance and perspective.

There has been plenty of embellishment and hyperbole from both sides with a gaping hole in between, where middle ground simply has not existed.

For example, if you have the audacity to criticise athletes who have spoken out in recent months - but who still have not yet provided a concrete way forward for WADA and anti-doping in general - or others who have tried to take the moral high ground throughout this sordid affair, then you are vilified and castigated as a PR merchant for WADA.

If you dare to highlight how some National Anti-Doping Agencies who have released politically-charged and agenda-driven statements may have their own problems back home you are seen to be siding with WADA’s leadership.

On the other hand, if you criticise WADA for its decision to reinstate the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) despite two key criteria remaining unfulfilled on the organisation’s compliance roadmap, you are met with the regurgitated response that the goalposts were not moved, even though they clearly were.

If you mention how ludicrous it seems that 12 people whose job is to protect sport cannot convene as soon as they receive the vital report from the Compliance Review Committee, the reply is that they needed as much time as possible to digest it fully before they take a decision.

This is, despite the fact the main issue at hand – seeing as there is no time to verify and authenticate the data – is a simple case of whether Russia missed the December 31 deadline, which the country so blatantly did.

And so we turn to tomorrow’s WADA Executive Committee meeting, where a decision will be taken on RUSADA’s compliance status.

I am not alone in thinking WADA should, at the very least, declare RUSADA non-compliant until the authentication process has reached its conclusion as punishment for Russian authorities refusing to comply with the December 31 deadline.

We still have no idea if the data is genuine or not and this must be resolved before Russia is completely let off the hook.

A legal fudge, such as potential provisional non-compliance pending the data being verified in its entirety, should also be among the options on the table.

The general belief, however, is that the Executive Committee will take a different course of action. The group will probably feel that Russia should not be suspended again given the principle aim of the conditions laid out by WADA when RUSADA wormed its way back to compliance in September was to gain access to the previously elusive data.

With that aim achieved – even if the access did come 18 days later than had been initially promised – it is hard to see WADA reimposing the suspension on RUSADA.

IOC President Thomas Bach and WADA counterpart Sir Craig Reedie are both desperate for the saga to end ©Getty Images
IOC President Thomas Bach and WADA counterpart Sir Craig Reedie are both desperate for the saga to end ©Getty Images

Tomorrow’s short meeting by teleconference is also unlikely to be the end of the affair that IOC President Thomas Bach and WADA are so desperate for as an assessment on the data’s credibility has not yet taken place and a further deadline of June 30 for Russia, where authorities must "procure that any re-analysis of samples required by WADA following review of such data", still looms on the anti-doping horizon.

WADA has publicly admitted that the review of the data could take months, further proof that the saga will drag on for a little while longer yet.

But the sporting world will hope it does not take another two years for this mess to be resolved once and for all.