Another week has gone by, and with it another series of meetings, criticisms, denial and counter-attacks in the seemingly endless crusade on Russian doping problems.
Extreme wings on either side have been the most vocal over recent days.
First, the Institute of National Anti-Doping Organisations (iNADO) called for the country’s complete expulsion from international sport. In their universe, no athletes would be permitted to compete under the Russian flag and no events would be allowed to take place there, including the FIFA World Cup in 2018.
Russia, never one to respond to fire with anything other than an industrial-level eruption, came out all guns blazing. "Anti-doping organisations should control the situation in their country, collect urine, but not interfere with politics," spat Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko.
A Russian Parliamentary Group was swiftly convened to assess whether all allegations are the result of some sort of "foreign-backed criminal group" linked to ex-Moscow Laboratory chief turned whistleblowing "traitor" Grigory Rodchenkov.
Business as usual, in other words.
Essentially, however, most of what we are hearing in public is tit-for-tat rhetoric and the fact that iNADO are resorting to shouting in the media shows how they do not really have much influence over what is really going on. Russia being stripped of the FIFA World Cup, for instance, is about the only outcome that we can currently bet our bottom ruble on not happening.
Much to the chagrin of anti-doping bodies, changes to the global landscape to give the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) a more prominent testing and, possibly, regulatory power is unlikely to realistically come into operation this year. Be it right or wrong, it is thus still the responsibility of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and International Federations - hopefully working with support from WADA - whose responses on Russia will be most important for the time being.
So where are we at the moment?
The truth is, nobody seems to be completely sure. After ruining a notebook with a convoluted spider diagram, it seems clearest to switch to a question and answer form in an attempt at a summary.
- Are the IOC fully determined to get to the bottom of the allegations?
Free from the immediate shackles of an impending Olympic Games, the IOC and its President Thomas Bach have certainly improved their public rhetoric in recent weeks.
They have spoken much more passionately and constructively to the media and, from what we have been told, top brass such as director general Christophe de Kepper and chief ethics and compliance officer Päquerette Girard Zappelli have been sounding much stronger behind closed doors as well.
But will they ultimately walk the walk as well as talk the talk? It goes without saying that Russia has plenty of power in international diplomacy. They also have such a big role not only in competing and hosting sporting events, but also in sponsoring them, that it appears difficult for them to be too isolated for too long. That said, recent signs from the IOC have seemed stronger. It does appear that they realise how they must sort this out for the long-term credibility of sport.
- And what about the International Federations?
On a general level, there still remains a huge discrepancy between the reactions of some, like rowing, which have always come across strong on anti-doping, and others, like athletics and weightlifting, who have been belatedly pushed into a strong response after years of problems, and others still, like football and aquatics, whose responses still appear fairly limited.
Our focus for the time being must be on the winter bodies because they face the most clear and immediate challenges before next the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang next year.
Some progress has certainly been made in recent weeks, with Russia being rightly stripped of events across skiing, skating, biathlon and bobsleigh, while provisional suspensions have also been introduced for Russians implicated in the McLaren Report. Athlete pressure is also growing for a strong response.
The trouble is that the International Federations are still being overwhelmingly reactive rather than proactive and there still seems, to us at least, little genuine determination to hold those guilty to account. There also appears a tendency to cling to the coat-tails of the IOC and follow their lead, even though the vast majority of McLaren’s evidence relates to events outside the Olympic Games.
There was also the troubling U-turn by the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation in their swift lifting of suspensions installed against Russians named by McLaren. The body were at pains to point-out that this was not evidence of their innocence. But it is not yet clear why the change was made.
The danger here on a wider level is that it may set a precedent for other International Federations to follow, and time will tell if this is the case. Hearings have been held with implicated Russians and the International Ski Federation in recent days, while an emergency International Biathlon Union Executive Board meeting is due to take place on Saturday (January 21) to discuss the next steps.
- How strong is the evidence and how is the IOC tackling it?
It appears that everyone - except most of Russia, of course - is currently in agreement that there was a major "anti-doping conspiracy" in the country. There are two key elements from the IOC’s perspective, with each under the auspice of a different Swiss-led Commission. One, led by former Swiss Confederation President Samuel Schmid, is focusing specifically on the allegations of Government involvement in connection to Sochi 2014. The second, led by IOC member Denis Oswald, is looking more specifically on the claims that samples submitted by home athletes during the Olympics were illegally replaced with fake ones.
Starting with Oswald’s focus, it appears that there is certainly enough evidence to prove the manipulation of samples: be it scratches on test tubes, coffee granules mixed with urine or physically impossible levels of salt. The tricky thing, in some cases, will be proving that individual athletes knew what was going on. At the moment they could seemingly claim that they "did everything right in submitting samples" and that the fault was therefore with anti-doping authorities for allowing samples to be manipulated. Any decision or sanction is therefore likely to be subject to an avalanche of appeals to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
It would thus seem easiest to first push cases about whom there is the strongest evidence, such as an email trail showing direct awareness of what was going on, to try and gain momentum.
However, it is thought that the IOC are keen to take a "systemic response to a systemic problem" rather than just punishing lone individuals. So this may involve taking on all, rather than just the cases they have the best chance of winning. This also brings us back to Schmid’s probe about who is responsible.
It is here where McLaren’s evidence appears less strong because his report does not draw strong conclusions, and rightly so as it was not the aim. Former Deputy Sports Minister Yuri Nagornykh has been sacked from his position due to his involvement, but there is still a feeling that those higher up the food chain were probably involved.
Relations between the IOC and WADA are certainly far better now than they were for most of last year, but it is thought Schmid still requires more assistance from McLaren over this. The constant denials from Russia are certainly not helping the situation, although we are told that the Commission headed by IOC honorary member Vitaly Smirnov is being more "cooperative".
- So how long is this all going to take?
This is the 64 million dollar question. It had been hoped that an Extraordinary IOC Executive Board meeting would take place at some point early in the year to take decisions, but the timetable is now thought likely to be pushed back.
Understandably, the IOC are prioritising the strength of their evidence over speed. The other key element is the re-analysis of Russian samples from Sochi 2014, something currently ongoing. Even once the actual re-testing is completed, however, it is hard to tell at this stage how long the legal process will take until cases are finalised and evidence can be used.
On balance, it does seem likely that the process will drag on all year and, perhaps, still be ongoing shortly before Pyeongchang 2018. But we can hope to hear some sort of intermediate resolution far before then.
- And what could the ultimate punishment be?
Bach has said that he hopes to ensure all Russians implicated will be barred from participating in Pyeongchang as well as stripped of their medals from Sochi 2014.
As it stands, it appears unlikely that a complete blanket ban will be introduced on the Russian team there. A possible compromise, of course, could be following the International Association of Athletics Federations lead and allowing "clean" Russians to participate under a neutral flag. The IOC refused to do this before Rio 2016 because the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) were not directly implicated.
However, it is possible - if unlikely - that the more direct links to winter sport may prompt a different response. There does, it is worth mooting, also appear a growing realisation about the political impotence of the ROC in the sense that it fulfills little more than an administrative role.
With regard to Russia’s eligibility in other events, it appears that the pre-2015 World Anti-Doping Code will still be used. This means that athletes would only receive two-year suspensions for a single offence.
Of course, if multiple doping samples are found to have been manipulated, this should mean they are guilty of two or more offences, meaning a ban of four-years or longer. Whether this is likely to happen or not could depend on whether International Federations carry out investigations separate to the Olympic evidence being probed by the IOC. It also appears likely that few winter sporting events will take place in Russia for the time being. But there is less of a restriction elsewhere and, in the long-term, it is hoped by just about everyone that the situation will be sorted out as soon as possible to mean that events can be held there again.
Essentially, however, it is impossible to accurately predict what will happen at this stage, and all of this is nothing more than hypothetical guesswork. It will thus be fascinating to see how proceedings play-out over the next few months.