Liam Morgan

Revelations that Russia may have manipulated data from the Moscow Laboratory will have come as a surprise to precisely no-one.

Possible tampering dominated a teleconference call the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) held with journalists in January after the global watchdog decided against additional sanctions on Russia following the missed deadline to hand over the data.

Not only that, but Russia has previous in this regard – the nation's 2018 World Cup bid team were said to have destroyed computers before FIFA could investigate – and WADA itself hinted at an issue back in July.

In a statement announcing it had sent the first batch of Russian cases to the relevant International Federations, WADA said it was "examining some differences" between the Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) database provided by a whistleblower in October 2017 and the version WADA extracted from the facility in January.

It has since emerged these discrepancies relate to positive results which appeared in the former and not the latter. Jonathan Taylor, chairman of the WADA Compliance Review Committee (CRC), said these seem to have been deleted.

Few are surprised Russia may have tampered with the Moscow Laboratory data ©Getty Images
Few are surprised Russia may have tampered with the Moscow Laboratory data ©Getty Images

Further details on the alleged tampering will emerge over the coming months, while WADA has set the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) and the Sports Ministry another deadline – this time to explain the "inconsistencies" in the data – of three weeks.

According to Taylor, this clarification will prove rather troublesome for the Russians. The British lawyer told insidethegames following the WADA Executive Committee meeting in Tokyo yesterday that a team of experts could find no "innocent reason" for the discrepancies.

This is a crucial point; if Russia is unable to explain an issue that has reignited a scandal, which some officials hoped would never come to light, the country could be pushed back into sporting exile.

At this stage, the emphasis is very much on the could. Yes, a ban on Russia competing at the Olympic Games is among the options on the table under stricter compliance standards, but that does not mean it will be triggered by WADA.

It is worth reiterating the process here. The CRC will recommend a course of action – Taylor insists the group "will not flinch" from going down the severe route if the manipulation is proven – to the WADA Executive Committee.

The 12-member body will then make a decision which, should it go against RUSADA, will almost certainly be appealed at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

It is feasible it might not get that far, as half of the Executive Committee members are from the sports movement, which opted against a blanket ban on Russian athletes from the 2016 and 2018 Olympic Games.

Those who argue the case would be stronger now than before have a valid point, but it is still hard to see International Olympic Committee (IOC) members voting in favour of the suspension of the entire Russian team at next year's Games.

That is the sad reality for those who continue to believe Russia has largely got away with orchestrating one of the biggest scandals sport has ever seen.

Should they go the other way, however, WADA officials are confident of success in front of CAS, where they will likely use rulings which upheld bans on Russia initiated by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) as a precedent.

The consequences of non-compliance would be far-reaching only if WADA follows the sanctions outlined in the stricter standard, which came into effect last year and what any new case against RUSADA will fall under.

Those regulations allow WADA's Executive Committee to ban Russia from Tokyo 2020 if it sees fit. What is more likely is paving the way for "clean" athletes to compete, following the process initiated by the IAAF and the IPC at Rio 2016.

Taylor is right when he says this latest development, which he admitted was not unexpected, is a test of the stricter rules.

What I am not in complete agreement with is suggestions the manipulation allegations show how WADA should have waited to fully analyse the data before reinstating RUSADA.

In December, I wrote that Russia should be punished for the missed deadline, but even the most ardent of WADA critics can accept that obtaining the data, whether it has been tampered with or not, represents a success.

Athletes and others wanted Russia to pay. Without the data, the 47 cases WADA has built so far would not be in motion. That is 47 Russian competitors who would have escaped sanctions for involvement in the scheme, and the current number is a whole lot better than zero.

WADA was at pains yesterday to insist those 47 were unaffected by tampering, but Taylor admitted others may collapse as a direct response, a worrying concession if significant manipulation is uncovered.

It may also strengthen Russia's challenge of suspensions given to athletes at CAS as they would be able to show the data is unreliable.

Russian officials are fearful of an Olympic ban at Tokyo 2020 because of the manipulation claims ©Getty Images
Russian officials are fearful of an Olympic ban at Tokyo 2020 because of the manipulation claims ©Getty Images

"We gave them an opportunity to draw a line under it, but if they did not provide authentic data, they have chosen not to take that opportunity," Taylor said.

"If you follow the standards and there is deliberate manipulation, you get to a very strong sanction.

"But we cannot prejudge the outcome and we cannot make a decision until we receive the explanation from Russia.

"The CRC will not flinch from pursuing what is set out in the standards, but it is up to the Executive Committee to decide."

While it still represents an embarrassment for senior WADA officials who gave their promises that Russia would fully comply, the main mission was to retrieve the data, key to prosecuting those athletes implicated.

It is easy to lose sight of that amid the condemnation and criticism of WADA, although some of it is justified.

What is important now is ensuring Russia faces the music if it did indeed manipulate the crucial data. If the path taken by WADA is to be vindicated, declaring RUSADA non-compliant is an absolute must.