Michael Pavitt

As the global sporting calendar collapsed earlier this week amid the coronavirus pandemic, the latest twist in one of the longest running sagas in sport took an understandable backseat.

World Athletics President Sebastian Coe opening his post Council meeting remarks with “There is probably nowhere else I can start” would in normal times be followed by “with Russia” given the federation’s fate hung in the balance prior to the meeting.

Instead the impact of coronavirus on the sport and potential consequences for Olympic qualification was the rightful starting point.

When sport resumes – whenever that may be – the decision taken by World Athletics on Russia will take on a greater significance as the sport attempts to cajole one of the most powerful countries to implement a lasting cultural change.

Given that the Russian Athletics Federation has remained suspended since November 2015, it is fair to say that progress has at best stalled. At worst it has shifted backwards.

That was reflected by the recommendation of the Task Force last year to recommend possible expulsion for RusAF and the halting of the Authorised Neutral Athletes (ANA) process, following charges against its officials over the obstruction of an investigation concerning high jumper Danil Lysenko.

The stick had got bigger and significantly heavier.

World Athletics tentatively seem to have had a response. There appears to have been an acknowledgement by Russia that the threat of completely missing out on track and field representatives at Tokyo 2020 was a genuine one.

The AIU charges ultimately led to the resignation of Dmitry Shlyakhtin as RusAF President, with Yevgeny Yurchenko elected as his replacement last month. Yurchenko quickly announced RusAF had "fully acknowledged" the charges made by the AIU regarding the previous leadership, paving the way for a revised ANA process to return.

World Athletics Council followed the advice of its Task Force earlier this week by sanctioning RusAF with a $10 million (£7.9 million/€8.9 million) fine – half suspended – over the Lysenko affair.

The governing body then reinstated the ANA process with a 10-athlete cap for major events, such as the Olympic Games and European Championships.

The swinging of the stick and dangling of a carrot delivered in one fell swoop.

World Athletics confirmed the latest measures regarding RusAF earlier this week ©ITG
World Athletics confirmed the latest measures regarding RusAF earlier this week ©ITG

Task Force chair Rune Andersen said the decision to introduce the cap was designed to act as an incentive for RusAF to start making changes. The previous system was considered to have not achieved the desired results, with 29 neutral athletes participating at the 2019 World Championships despite RusAF’s limited process.

“This has been discussed in light of what is needed in order to change the culture,” Andersen said.

“The previous system of authorised neutral athletes had not brought the changes that we wanted to come along.

“We were trying to find a figure which might trigger change.”

A detail that perhaps went under the radar, was that eight of the 10 athletes will come from the Athletics Integrity Unit's registered international testing pool.

This includes three-time high jump world champion Mariya Lasitskene, pole vault world champion Anzhelika Sidorova and men’s 110m metres hurdles star Sergey Shubenkov. High jumpers Ilya Ivanyuk and Mikhail Akimenko are also included, along with decathlete Ilya Shkurenyov, pole vaulter Timur Morgunov and race walker Vasiliy Mizinov.

As well as being subject to the same testing standards as their international counterparts, several of the athletes have been vocal voices for change within RusAF and will be important figures in ensuring the correct action is taken.

It seems a smart and fair move to allow those athletes to compete. Something we should bare in mind when calls for blanket bans get made.

Lasitskene, Sidorova and Shubenkov had met with Coe a week prior to the Council meeting in Monaco, with the World Athletics President acknowledging they have an important role in helping to drive change.

“They were very clear about their desire to be part of that change process,” Coe said.

“They made some very helpful observations around coaching and the need for a cultural shift.

“They want to be part of the solution and clearly they wanted to be protective of their ability to compete, particularly as authorised neutral athletes."

Yevgeny Yurchenko has pledged to work towards fulfilling the criteria set by World Athletics ©Getty Images
Yevgeny Yurchenko has pledged to work towards fulfilling the criteria set by World Athletics ©Getty Images

The ball has now been put back into RusAF’s court.

Failure to pay $5 million (£3.9 million/€4.4 million) of the fine by July 1 would see the neutral athlete process suspended again, while the ANA cap could go up or down depending on progress made.

The new criteria introduced includes RusAF establishing a Reinstatement Commission, which will be tasked with devising a plan to ingrain a zero tolerance anti-doping culture.

What now remains to be seen is whether RusAF’s new leadership will achieve change, although the early noises have been promising.

“We have achieved the main thing - the ability of Russian athletes to participate in international competitions, athletes are the heart of sports,” Yurchenko told the Russian news state agency TASS earlier this week.

“It is important for us that they are not infringed on their rights and have the opportunity to start, and therefore realise their potential. I’m glad that the process of issuing neutral statuses will be resumed, this is the main thing.

“Regarding the creation of the commission, the presence of international experts, a step-by-step recovery plan and following it, I can say that these are necessary measures. I support and welcome these measures, we are ready to implement them in full. Now we need to regain the trust of the world athletics family, restore open and honest dialogue. We will do this, there will be no rollback.”

While Yurchenko’s words are positive, there is a sense of déjà vu. It is difficult for World Athletics, athletes and fans to place their trust that RusAF will follow though on their pledges given the history.

Trust is something that is easily lost and hard earned.

This is a long-running saga, but it is one that is still some way from its conclusion.