Mike Rowbottom

Hard-line observers will say that Russia deserves to be completely shut out of international competition following the evidence of systematic doping and evasion in recent years, including the belated handing over of data from the Moscow Laboratory that was shown to have been deleted or manipulated.

But Russia’s two-year ban - reduced by the Court of Arbitration for Sport hearing last December from the four-year term first imposed by World Anti-Doping Agency - is more of a sieve than a plug.

Those competitors who are able to prove to the satisfaction of event organisers that they have undergone rigorous anti-doping procedures will be able to take part.

The template now adopted across all international competition, including the Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 Games, as well as the 2022 FIFA World Cup, was established in 2017 by the International Association of Athletics Federations - now World Athletics.

Directed by its President Sebastian Coe, the international athletics body had imposed a unilateral ban on Russian track-and-field athletes in November 2015. The spirit of that ban was apparent the following year when  the International Paralympic Committee voted unanimously to bar Russian competitors from the Rio Paralympics. (The International Olympic Committee took the opposite view.)

But a scheme was soon devised within international athletics whereby Russian athletes who had undergone agreed anti-doping procedures were offered the option of returning to the competitive arena as Authorised Neutral Athletes.

Now that the same arrangement has been confirmed across the full range of sports, the details involved are being announced.

And this, frankly, is where it becomes farcical.

Don't look now - it's the Russian flag. But an
Don't look now - it's the Russian flag. But an "ROC" flag will still read as Russian under new sanction rules. And what if a Russian spectator brings a flag to the stadium? ©Getty Images

The headline of the ban reads that once these suitably sieved competitors arrive at their arena of choice they will not be able to operate under the Russian flag, or to hear the Russian anthem, or to wear Russian uniform.

But under the implementation guidelines approved last week by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Compliance Review Committee, Russian competitors will operate with a flag and uniform bearing the letters ROC - the initials of the Russian Olympic Committee.

Is that seriously any different to the muddled ruling that obtained during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Games, where Russian competitors carried the not-too-ambiguous monicker of "Olympic Athlete from Russia"?

Assuming spectators will be able to return to international competition by 2022 - prayers in all churches - what will happen if, shock horror, a Russian fan unfurls a Russian flag to mark a Russian achievement? Will WADA or IOC enforcers dive into the crowd to confiscate it?

The fact is that once Russian athletes are cleared to compete at an Olympics or a World Cup they are representing their country, whatever the garb.

Personally I feel all this fannying about with flags, anthems and uniforms is a nonsense. The key point is - are these athletes representing Russia clean?

If they are, and have been proven so to the satisfaction of the event organisers, they should compete in Russian uniform, and if they win a medal they should see their national flag and hear their national anthem played. Why not?

Russia's Mariya Lasitskene has dominated women's high jump in recent years while competing as an Authorised Neutral Athlete ©Getty Images
Russia's Mariya Lasitskene has dominated women's high jump in recent years while competing as an Authorised Neutral Athlete ©Getty Images

Russia being disallowed from hosting international events until December 16 2022 looks like another tangible punishment, although the ambiguous wording - "unless it is legally or practically impossible" to move an event already given to Russia - could and some would say already has seen this undermined.

In truth the main punishment Russian sport has incurred for its orchestrated doping is that for two years it must operate under the reverse of one of the most ancient principles of justice. In effect, Russia is guilty until proven innocent.

By the by, WADA announced it was "disappointed" with the CAS decision to halve the ban. But it added that an appeal would not serve any useful purpose as the final arbiter, the Swiss Federal Tribunal, could only consider "procedural matters".

As you might have expected, the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RSUADA) said it would not appeal the CAS verdict despite "strongly disagreeing with the findings in the CAS award regarding the alleged data manipulations".

RUSADA claimed the findings were "based on a flawed and one-sided assessment of the facts and were not sufficiently proven".

This is an interesting assessment given that RUSADA stressed before and after the CAS hearing that it had no access to the manipulated data in question, so it was in no position to offer any clarification to WADA. Meanwhile those who did have access to the manipulated data continued not to offer clarification.

So you have to ask - how could the assessment be other than a one-sided one?

But returning to the topic of individual athletes - the key dynamic in the future involvement of Russians in future international events will be the stringency of the checks that are being carried out with regard to anti-doping measures.

RSUADA described the CAS judgement as being
RSUADA described the CAS judgement as being "based on a flawed and one-sided assessment of the facts" - but clarification about manipulated data has still not been forthcoming from the Russian side ©Getty Images

While they may not have access to the manipulated data - who does? - this will put to the test the repeated assurances of the newly-constituted RUSADA that it wants to ensure "clear sports".

In October, Mikhail Bukhanov, acting director general of RUSADA, told insidethegames: "Everybody in clear sports has their human rights to be a part of the competition, so by this we are also in support of human rights of clear athletes.

"RUSADA now is completely another organisation and very developed.

"We have very good values about personal responsibility in the field of protection and the rights of clear sportsmen.

"We really want to do our job, to fight against doping on behalf of clear sportsmen.

"We will do it despite everything, of course, because it is really what we need now for our sport."

And again, prayers in every church.