Nancy Gillen

Even though parts have been redacted, the External Review Commission’s (ERC) report into the former leadership at the International Biathlon Union (IBU) goes into eye-watering detail.

It is rare to have such an insight of the inner workings of an International Federation, especially when a report is dealing with issues such as corruption and unethical conduct. This is indeed what ERC chairman Jonathan Taylor found during his two-year investigation of the behaviour of Anders Besseberg and Nicole Resch, former IBU President and secretary general, respectively.

According to the report, published earlier this week, Besseberg had "no regard for ethical values and no real interest in protecting the sport from cheating" and "consistently preferred and protected Russian interests in virtually everything that he did".

His partiality to Russia seemed to be the result of an extensive grooming exercise. Besseberg is thought to have received up to $300,000 (£219,000/€247,000) - possibly more - in cash from Russian officials, gifted flash watches, and taken on expensive hunting trips by his Russian hosts. In a more sordid detail, the report found the Norwegian was often given the services of a young female "interpreter" when he visited Russia.

As a result, Besseberg remained on Russia’s side both publicly and privately, no matter what. According to the report, he allowed ex-Russian Biathlon Union President Alexander Tikhonov to remain IBU first vice-president even after he was charged with conspiracy to commit murder in 2007.

The report from the ERC was damning about Anders Besseberg's conduct during his time as IBU President ©Getty Images
The report from the ERC was damning about Anders Besseberg's conduct during his time as IBU President ©Getty Images

Among other misdemeanours, Besseberg then sought to downplay the Russian doping scandal that broke in late 2014 and 2015. In the ERC’s view, "the pattern of corrupt and unethical decision-making was apparent long before evidence of an institutionalised doping conspiracy in Russia started to emerge in 2014 and 2015, but it was clearly exposed by Mr Besseberg's woeful response to that evidence, even as it turned inexorably from a trickle to a stream to a torrent".

Indeed, biathlon was not immune to the prevalence of doping in Russian sport. According to the McLaren Report, Russia covered up 10 positive tests between the period of 2011 and 2015, with Olympic biathlon medallists such as Evgeny Ustyugov, Svetlana Sleptsova, Olga Vilukhina and Olga Zaitseva all implicated in doping.

Former Russian biathlon coach Anatoli Khovantsev has even admitted doping had been widespread at one point. "Between 2002 and 2014, you could count clean biathletes on the fingers of one hand,” he told in June.  

The ERC report also found Resch to have breached a number of IBU rules. The German was said to have been "worried about Mr Besseberg’s clear pro-Russia stance", but there is evidence she still placed Russian interests ahead of the IBU’s zero tolerance policy towards doping.

Resch was deemed to have "failed to react" to highly abnormal values in the blood parameters of Russian biathlete Evgeny Ustyugov at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, for example. She could also face disciplinary action over allegedly colluding with Besseberg to stifle an investigation into the discovery of a used EPO syringe on the track at the 2015 IBU World Cup event in Antholz-Anterselva.

Nicole Resch was found to have place Russian interests before the IBU's doping policy while she was secretary general ©Getty Images
Nicole Resch was found to have place Russian interests before the IBU's doping policy while she was secretary general ©Getty Images

The report claimed Resch’s pro-Russian stance was most evident when she offered three biathletes from the country strategic advice on how to appeal their doping bans. For the ERC, this was "clear evidence" that Resch had crossed a line.

It is interesting to read the ERC report with the recent sanctions imposed on Russia by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in mind. WADA had imposed a four-year package of punishments on Russia in 2019 after it found data from the Moscow Laboratory had been tampered with and manipulated.

This was halved to a period of two years by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in December. Although Russia will be unable to host major events until the end of 2022 or have its flag and anthem feature at the Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 Olympics, the concessions made by CAS meant the eventual sanctions were widely criticised.

At the time I spoke to United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) chief executive Travis Tygart, a long-time critic of WADA. He described the Russian doping scandal as "the most egregious sporting crime that we’ve seen", but claimed "the punishment is almost non-existent."

This opinion is likely to be intensified by the details in the ERC report. The extent to which Russia attempted to influence Besseberg and cover up incidents of doping in biathlon will add fuel to the argument that the country has not been adequately sanctioned for its actions.  

WADA, incidentally, has welcomed the ERC report and credited the work of its independent Intelligence and Investigations Department in helping to uncover the cases of corruption in biathlon.

What now of biathlon’s future? The current IBU President, Olle Dahlin, has appeared optimistic the governing body can draw a line under its murky past and focus on a "very bright future". To evidence this, he listed a number of governance initiatives implemented since his election in 2018, including the launch of a new constitution and integrity code, and the creation of the Biathlon Integrity Unit (BIU).

This work has been recognised by the wider sporting world, including by the third Association of International Olympic Winter Sports Federations (AIOWF) governance review, published in September. The IBU was placed in the 'B' tier, but its score had improved by 33 per cent from the previous report in 2019 and exceeded the target score set by the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations taskforce.

BIU chair Louise Reilly claimed the work carried out by the ERC would "transform the culture" of biathlon, "embedding ethical values, accountability and transparency into the fabric of the sport." Both Reilly and Dahlin have pledged their commitment to study the recommendations and conclusions made by the ERC. The BIU is also set to determine whether disciplinary action will be taken against Besseberg and Resch.

It is important to note that criminal investigations into the behaviour of the two figures previously at the helm of the IBU is continuing. Both Besseberg and Resch have denied wrongdoing, even refusing to take part in the ERC investigation, but it is clear that this sordid situation is not yet over.