Liam Morgan

What if it had been Beckie Scott providing the athletes’ voice on the Compliance Review Committee (CRC) when it discussed how to punish Russia for manipulating the Moscow Laboratory data, rather than Penny Heyns?

That was the question which came to mind following an answer given by CRC chairman Jonathan Taylor at a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) press conference on Monday (December 9).

The astute British lawyer was asked how close the panel came to recommending a blanket ban on Russia after WADA found it had deleted and manipulated data from the laboratory, including in the days before it was finally handed over to the global watchdog in January.

The CRC chose not to go down that avenue. While proposing a four-year ban on the Russian flag flying at major events, including next year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo, the CRC instead said athletes who can prove they had no role in the doping scandal and were not implicated in the cover-up should be able to compete as neutrals.

At the press conference in Lausanne, Taylor revealed this had a lot to do with the input of double Olympic swimming champion Heyns, whose views had played a significant role in the eventual recommendation.

"From a CRC point of view, we discussed it [a blanket ban] very specifically and the strongest person on that subject was Penny Heyns, who was very strong on the idea that athletes who are in a new generation and who had not competed in 2012-2015, had nothing to do with the underlying doping scandal or the cover-up, should have an opportunity to compete," Taylor said.

Heyns has served on the CRC since replacing Scott in January. The Canadian former cross-country skier resigned from the panel in protest at the decision to conditionally reinstate the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) at a meeting in the Seychelles last year, where she alleged she had been bullied by two members of the Executive Committee.

South Africa's double Olympic swimming gold medallist Penny Heyns played a key role in the CRC recommending clean Russian athletes be able to compete, it was revealed ©Getty Images
South Africa's double Olympic swimming gold medallist Penny Heyns played a key role in the CRC recommending clean Russian athletes be able to compete, it was revealed ©Getty Images

Scott, whose term as chairperson of the WADA Athlete Committee is drawing to a close, advocated a blanket ban on Russians from the start and would almost certainly have done the same had she been part of the latest discussions on what to do with the scandal-tainted country.

Of course, this is all hypothetical and, as with all things anti-doping, is not a black and white issue. But it is feasible that, had Scott remained on the CRC, the punishment handed down by WADA this week may have been as strong and severe as she has long campaigned for it to be.

Had Scott carried on in her role, Russia could have been entirely banned from Tokyo 2020 and other major events, something several athletes and individuals believe would have been the correct course of action.

The CRC may have accepted the Canadian’s blanket ban viewpoint and chosen a different tack regardless, but at least there would have been a vociferous voice in that particular camp.

This is not an attack on Scott; far from it. Her reasons for resigning her position on the CRC are entirely understandable, given how fiercely she opposed the decision to lift a near three-year suspension on RUSADA, coupled with the behaviour of some of the Executive Committee.

Allegations of bullying were not proven following an investigation, but Scott and others, including outgoing WADA vice-president Linda Helleland, raised concerns regarding the way it was conducted.

Canada's Beckie Scott resigned her position on the CRC in protest at the conditional reinstatement of RUSADA ©Getty Images
Canada's Beckie Scott resigned her position on the CRC in protest at the conditional reinstatement of RUSADA ©Getty Images

What Scott believed to be a weak response to the Russian doping scandal, one which has marred sport and will be the prevailing issue in the build-up to a third consecutive Olympic Games, by WADA was the very reason she felt she could no longer continue as the athlete representative on the CRC.

The Canadian and others may feel vindicated in their opposition to that notorious September 2018 decision in the far-flung Seychelles, considering the deletion of the data and the adverse impact that may have on the main basis of that decision - to prosecute those who had cheated.

"RUSADA was made compliant without having delivered the data from the lab," Helleland said. "Now we know that decision was wrong."

WADA's latest call was never going to please everybody. As Taylor himself pointed out, "Reasonable people can disagree on this and I completely understand that."

Sitting on the fence is never a popular argument but there are valid points on both sides of this debate.

What is not in doubt is the flagrant and blatant manipulation of the data, including deletions in the days and weeks before WADA eventually had it in its hands, and the "insult to the sporting movement worldwide", in the words of the International Olympic Committee, merited tough action.

It is what is considered tough enough which has been the bone of contention in the days since the Executive Committee made its decision.

Athletes appear split on this point. Heyns and Scott, for example, have divergent views and came to entirely different conclusions.

Of the 17 members of the WADA Athlete Committee, nine backed a blanket ban and the other eight did not.

It is what makes the statements emanating from certain bodies claiming to speak on behalf of athletes even more disingenuous. There is no unanimous view from athletes, one way or the other.

What is certain is that deciding which Russians can compete at major events including the Olympics will be a thankless task.

"It’s our duty to ensure all clean athletes have the right to compete, including those from Russia who can honestly prove their innocence," Heyns told the New York Times.

Some believe proving who fulfils that criteria will be next to impossible, however, given the deletion of data from the Russian authorities, and the image of potentially hundreds of neutral Russian athletes competing at Tokyo 2020 hardly screams stern punishment.

WADA's Executive Committee voted to impose a four-year ban on Russia earlier this week ©Getty Images
WADA's Executive Committee voted to impose a four-year ban on Russia earlier this week ©Getty Images

There are numerous caveats to consider, too, particularly for sports bodies tasked with implementing the sanctions against a country many count among their key investors.

Part of the raft of punishments was stripping Russia of any World Championships it is due to host in the four-year period of non-compliance, which begins as soon as the decision is final (ie, when the Court of Arbitration for Sport makes its ruling).

Yet there seems a reluctance from some International Federations to remove events from Russia and reassign them elsewhere. René Fasel, President of the International Ice Hockey Federation, is already on record as saying it will be "impossible" to relocate its 2023 World Championship, slated for Saint Petersburg.

The International Luge Federation will be relieved its upcoming World Championships, due to be held in Sochi in February, come too soon for the decision to enter into force.

Others, including the International Federation of Sport Climbing and the International Volleyball Federation - who are set to host World Championships in Russia in 2021 and 2022, respectively - will probably devise excuses as to why it is easier for their respective events to remain in the country, despite the rules from WADA.

It is easy to see why it has been labelled as a "ban in name only"at this stage. As is always the case with anti-doping issues, and especially in the Russian doping saga, it will come down to the finer points and the devil will almost certainly be in the detail.