Nick Butler

I was hoping there might be a new issue on the agenda to tackle other than Russian doping when returning to work over the weekend following a post-Olympic break. Alas, this proved not to be the case as we were hit by a double whammy of convoluted buck-passing between the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and world governing bodies for two major sports.

First, the International Swimming Federation (FINA) suffered a major blow thanks to a trio of resignations led by Canada’s Doping Control Review Board (DCRB) chair Andrew Pipe, who stepped-down in protest, along with American and Australian colleagues Larry Bowers and Susan White. FINA’s leadership were accused of an "indifference to anti-doping" by the resigning trio after they supposedly ignored their "unanimous recommendation" to take a far stricter line on the eligibility of Russian athletes at Rio 2016.

Then, the International Biathlon Federation (IBU) decided to go one better by not only tolerating the presence of Russia, but awarding their showpiece World Championships to the resort of Tyumen in 2021. Hardly a "zero tolerance" approach to sport’s biggest sinner, who, lest we forget, are accused of state-sponsored doping in their home Winter Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014.

But it is the excuses used by both International Federations which have really caught the eye. 

FINA, after initially ignoring requests for a reaction, eventually responded with a statement in which they claimed the Olympic Games were an IOC event so it was not their responsibility over who competed.

"The decision on the participation of the Russian athletes has been made by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and the IOC," they said. "FINA fully respected and implemented their decisions. In this very complex process, FINA did express the Doping Control Review Board position but our International Federation was not the body ultimately deciding the outcome on this matter."

Hmm. This may have been true in relation to the seven swimmers, including double silver medallist Yuliya Efimova, who were initially deemed ineligible before successful CAS appeals and IOC ratification. But it is clear the DCRB had proposed far stricter criteria in which more than seven of the 37 Russian squad members were rejected. This was thought to have included some who had not been directly implicated in doping but had not proved they were operating in an "effective testing system", so a similar approach as to what was successfully adopted by the International Rowing Federation.

Russian swimmers like Yuliya Efimova were belatedly permitted to compete at Rio 2016 despite opposition ©Getty Images
Russian swimmers like Yuliya Efimova were belatedly permitted to compete at Rio 2016 despite opposition ©Getty Images

Pipe, Bowers and White claimed in their resignation letter that the first they heard about these swimmers being allowed to compete was when they saw them on television during the Games. Russians would undoubtedly dismiss the trio as further evidence of "Western political pressure", and it is possible that Pipe may have been leaned on by those two Richards with whom he shares nationality: World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Independent Commission members Richard Pound and Richard McLaren.

But it is hard to disagree with the "indifference to anti-doping" conclusion. 

FINA President Julio Maglione was the official who claimed WADA "exceeded their power" when compiling McLaren's Report, remember, and he also somewhat mysteriously visited Russia the week before it came out in July. And in 2014, he awarded the prestigious FINA Order to Vladimir Putin, President of the country from which over 20 swimmers have been banned since 2009 in addition to the alleged "disappearing positives" at events including the World Swimming Championships in Kazan last year.

"FINA always coordinates with all stakeholders in the sport movement to assure that transparency and zero tolerance in the fight against doping is in place, thus protecting the clean athletes," Maglione claimed in the FINA statement.

Other observers believe they are among the least transparent of any International Federation - and that is saying quite a lot. Evidence suggests that FINA's leaders consider anti-doping an irritation which ranks far behind the political importance of maintaining relations with one of their most committed hosts of major events.

And, of course, the IOC rules gave them the flexibility to adopt far stricter criteria, like rowing and weightlifting bodies ultimately did.

The IOC have so far claimed this is an "internal issue" about which they do not need to comment, an approach which rather sums up their general strategy. By handing responsibility to International Federations and opting not to take clear leadership, they fermented a process lacking transparency and coherence. They probably prefer it this way.

But, while they have not got on too well with United States Presidents in recent years, they would do well to note the adage popularised by former Oval Office holder Harry S. Truman that "the buck stops here".

IOC President Thomas Bach pictured attending a German-leg of the IBU World Cup in 2015 ©Getty Images
IOC President Thomas Bach pictured attending a German-leg of the IBU World Cup in 2015 ©Getty Images

The IOC's role in the biathlon decision is even worse. 

On July 19, they published a statement outlining the "toughest sanctions available" following the publication of McLaren Report. This included a commitment to "not organise or give patronage to any sports event or meeting in Russia", including plans European Games in 2019. Because of the "detailed references to the manipulation of samples during the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014", they also asked "all International Olympic Winter Sports Federations to freeze their preparations for major events in Russia, such as World Championships, World Cups or other major international competitions under their responsibility, and to actively look for alternative organisers".

They swiftly clarified that they had no problem with Russia hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2018 but have made no other public clarifications. It therefore came as a surprise to us when Norway's IBU President Anders Besseberg claimed that they were told in a meeting with all Winter International Federations during Rio 2016 that the rules only applied to future candidacies of Russian cities for major events. So, any event already awarded to Russia was okay, as was any competition, like the biathlon, which they had already committed to bidding for.

Officials from other sports present told us that the IOC assured the IBU during that meeting that Tyumen was allowed to stay in the race, thus confirming Besseberg’s account. The IOC have not yet answered our questions about this directly, They have said only that they are "aware of the decision of the IBU and will continue its discussions with the International Olympic Winter Sports Federations about the practical implementation of the recommendation of the IOC Executive Board".

But this alleged advice contrasts with their earlier order to "freeze preparations" and "actively look for other organisers", particularly as Tyumen was not the only option and was chosen over two rival bids from Czech Republic and Slovenia.

The IOC have therefore deviated from a publicly announced position in private, not for the first time.

Norwegian Biathlon Federation President Erlend Slokvik has described the decision as a "scandal" on his Facebook page.

Russia was awarded the World Championships at the IBU Congress in Chisinau in Moldova ©IBU
Russia was awarded the World Championships at the IBU Congress in Chisinau in Moldova ©IBU

The McLaren Report, as the Russians and certain sporting figures continue to point out, does remain only allegations at the moment and more research is required and indeed expected to be produced sometime next month. Yes, Russia has delivered plenty of rhetorical commitments to reform. But these have been invariably accompanied by stringent denials and counter-attacks and we cannot yet say with any confidence that anything has changed. 

As it stands, there appears no evidence to suggest the broad spine of the allegations are not true; therefore no justification for awarding Russia a World Championships.

And, like with FINA, the buck-passing from the IBU in using the IOC to justify a decision is ridiculous. 

Russia’s Ministry of Sport, remember, is accused of conspiring to feed fake doping samples through a mousehole in the dead-of-night in order to cheat themselves to a medal table topping performance, and, if proven, this means they have tainted an entire reputation of a Winter Olympics. The International Paralympic Committee seemed genuinely furious about this, and used words like "disgusted" and "corrupted" to evoke their fury when issuing the country with a blanket ban from Rio 2016. 

But, despite proven Russian doping in the sport going back years, the IBU and indeed all other Winter International Federations have said nothing of the sort. There was nothing to stop them taking a harder line stance regardless of IOC support - as rowing, weightlifting and athletics bodies all did - and they have instead sent out a signal that they do not care.

Plenary Sessions at November’s IF Forum in Lausanne attended by all Summer and Winter Olympic sporting bodies, and opened by IOC President Thomas Bach, tackled the opening three themes of: "Implementing Good Governance", "Accountability through Transparency" and "Democratic Decision-Making".

Recent days suggest that the IBU, FINA and the IOC all have more work to do in addressing these themes.