Liam Morgan

It is not difficult to see why the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s (CAS) verdict in the protracted Russia versus the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) saga has been met with disappointment and uproar.

Not only did the CAS halve the period where the sanctions imposed by WADA apply from four years to two, but the three-person panel which ruled on one of the most important appeals sport’s highest court has dealt with since it was established in 1984 did so while simultaneously substantiating the allegations that led to the original decision over a year ago. Why?

The CAS agreed with WADA, but decided four years was a disproportionate sanction, despite Russia carrying out what even the International Olympic Committee (IOC) - which readmitted the country as soon as it had the chance to after Pyeongchang 2018 - has described as "an attack on the credibility of sport itself and is an insult to the sporting movement worldwide".

Even though athletes found guilty of doping, save for those with mitigating circumstances of varying degrees of plausibility, are exiled for four years, Russia only gets two. Why?

Some will suggest the answers lie in the fact that the outcome seems to suit all parties involved in the case, including WADA, the IOC and Russia itself.

WADA can claim victory as, according to its President Witold Bańka, the sanctions are "the strongest set of consequences ever imposed on any country for doping-related offences."

The organisation wanted the Russian flag banned from Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022, and it got that, but it would equally be right to feel more than a little let down by sport's supreme court.

The CAS has rendered its final decision in the case between Russia and WADA ©Getty Images
The CAS has rendered its final decision in the case between Russia and WADA ©Getty Images

If the IOC could have orchestrated the verdict - sceptics will point to this being the case given the links between the IOC and the CAS - it might have looked something like yesterday’s announcement, given the organisation's preference for individual justice over collective responsibility and the way it has fudged its way through the fallout to the doping scandal.

Russia, on the other hand, will see it as a win as the initial four-year "ban" on its flag at the Olympic Games and World Championships has been cut to two.

The exact reasons why save for a reference to proportionality, were not mentioned at all in the "operative part" of the CAS decision, which raised more questions than answers and contained numerous caveats, concessions and - in the view of some - cop-outs from the panel without explanation.

It is worth noting here that the punishments imposed by WADA last year did not constitute an Olympic ban in the first place.

WADA’s extensive four-year package of sanctions, praised by even the most ardent critics of the global watchdog, stopped short of a blanket ban on the country at the Olympics, so CAS was never going to make that part of its ruling.

But a comparison of the December 2019 decision from WADA and the minutiae, details and loopholes in yesterday’s release shows the extent to which the sanctions have been weakened and watered down, and lends credence to the view that Russia has got away with it. Again.

Judging by the contents of the release, we can expect a considerable Russian presence at Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022.

WADA officials have claimed the CAS decision represents a victory for sport - despite the initial four-year period being halved to two ©Getty Images
WADA officials have claimed the CAS decision represents a victory for sport - despite the initial four-year period being halved to two ©Getty Images

The only Russian athletes who will be excluded from a neutral team are those serving a doping ban, who would have been ineligible anyway.

This is significantly scaled down compared to the recommendation from the WADA Compliance Review Committee that was endorsed by the Executive Committee last year, which stated Russian athletes can only take part at major events "where they are able to demonstrate that they are not implicated in any way by the non-compliance with conditions including (without limitation) that they are not mentioned in incriminating circumstances in the McLaren reports".

The sanctions also said Russian competitors would only be eligible providing "there are no positive findings reported for them in the database and no data relating to their samples has been manipulated, and that they have been subject to adequate in-competition and out-of-competition testing prior to the event in question according to WADA".

Add to that the fact the CAS has removed a measure which would have imposed vetting requirements on Russian athletes, who will no longer have to prove they have not been involved in the doping conspiracy to compete while wearing a uniform that will undoubtedly feature the country’s name, and you have a recipe for a substantial Russian squad at Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022.

The rules for Russian competitors also appear considerably less stringent than for Pyeongchang 2018, where athletes from the pariah nation were vetted by a panel before being cleared to represent "Olympic Athletes from Russia".

I am no lawyer or legal expert, but the discrepancy here makes little sense. There is far more meat on the bones of the Russian scandal now than before the 2018 Winter Olympics in the little-known South Korean resort, yet there are less barriers to the country’s athletes for Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022.

Russians will argue the athletes who will compete at those Games would not have been involved in the state-sponsored system, and there is merit to that opinion. But it is about trust. How can anyone trust Russia now or in the future when they have spent so many years lying and cheating?

Russian athletes at Pyeongchang 2018 competed as
Russian athletes at Pyeongchang 2018 competed as "Olympic Athletes from Russia" ©Getty Images

There are other parts of the verdict which have sparked deserved criticism. The word "Russia" can feature on the uniform of the nation’s team at events including Tokyo 2020, Beijing 2022 and the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, providing it is accompanied by the word neutral.

The Russian flag itself might be banned but the colours of white, blue and red are permitted, while spectators will also be able to bring it into venues at the Olympics and World Championships.

A ban on Russian Olympic Committee and Russian Paralympic Committee officials from attending the "major events" defined by WADA and confirmed by the CAS as World Championships and the Olympics has also been lifted, which has the IOC’s hands all over it.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will not be able to attend Tokyo 2020, Beijing 2022 or the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, for example, unless he is invited by the head of state of the host country. Which he almost certainly will be.

"CAS reduced the ban by half, allowing Russian athletes to participate in international sporting events anyway, and in effect upheld an already-limited ban in name only," said Grigory Rodchenkov’s lawyer Jim Walden.

While other elements of the original WADA sanctions have been fully upheld save for the reduced time in which they apply, such as Russia being barred from hosting major events or being awarded them before the period lapses, it is little wonder that Russia largely believes the CAS verdict was a victory for the country.

It is also little wonder some believe Russia has merely been rebranded, rather than banned, for the next two years.

A ban on Russian Olympic Committee officials from the Games has been lifted by CAS ©Getty Images
A ban on Russian Olympic Committee officials from the Games has been lifted by CAS ©Getty Images

The CAS has questions to answer over the process which led to CAS reducing the punishment period and imposing a diminished set of sanctions on a country found to have committed egregious anti-doping violations.

As correctly pointed out by my astute colleague Michael Pavitt, is it really the job of the CAS to, in its own words, consider "the need to effect cultural change and encourage the next generation of Russian athletes to participate in clean international sport" when it makes its rulings?

It is unlikely these and the other questions raised by the decision will be answered anytime soon, but what is certain is the outcome was the best Russia could have hoped for. And perhaps that says it all.