Ever since the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) was declared non-compliant in November 2015, a question has ominously lingered over the sports movement; just how long can this go on?
If the legitimacy of a letter sent by Russian authorities to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) prior to a fractious and heated two days of meetings in the organisation’s home city of Montreal this week, we might just be reaching the endgame, or something close to it.
Had the International Olympic Committee (IOC) members and other sports representatives who arrived in the Canada got their way, RUSADA would already have been reinstated.
The IOC and sports movement officials who sit on WADA’s Executive Committee arrived in Montreal with a clear agenda; to ensure they left Canada with RUSADA recompliant.
IOC President Thomas Bach has a multitude of mostly empty phrases which he likes to call upon every now and again and one of his favourites has been the need to “draw a line” under the whole sorry Russian scandal.
That feeling was evident among some of his most trusted lieutenants - Patrick Baumann and Uğur Erdener in particular - during the Executive Committee and then subsequent Foundation Board meetings, where sport once again took a back seat and politics came to the fore.
The IOC made their intentions clear from the get go. If you believe the likes of Baumann, Erdener and Association of Summer Olympic International Federations President Francesco Ricci Bitti, the letter, delivered to WADA before the 12-member Executive Committee convened on Wednesday (May 16), met one of the two outstanding reinstatement criteria RUSADA has failed to meet.
The sports movement claim the document, which was the focal point of the often explosive discussions in Montreal, constitutes the elusive acceptance of the McLaren Report and its findings; a quite remarkable shift from the prolonged Russian diatribe that they would never give any credence whatsoever to the report from the Canadian lawyer.
WADA President Sir Craig Reedie also talked up the potential significance of the letter. The veteran Scot, who has been at the helm throughout this protracted affair, described it as a possible “game-changer” and added it was the “most encouraging piece of correspondence” they had received from Russia.
Sir Craig expressed his hope that it could help bring an end to the ongoing impasse between RUSADA and WADA, which up until this week had shown little sign of improvement.
But the public authority representatives within WADA, who have become gradually more vocal since the appointment of Norwegian Linda Helleland as vice-president in 2016, are not so sure.
They will tell you that it does not go far enough and therefore fails to tick one of the two boxes RUSADA need to fulfill if the body is to be welcomed back from the cold after a near three-year absence.
Public authorities were also quick to point out the RUSADA roadmap was initiated with the full support of the sports movement.
Those of us who have become even more cynical amid the largely weak response to the Russian doping crisis - they cheated to win medals at major events for a sustained period of time, remember - may also suggest the IOC could have had a hand in the letter and its content.
It would certainly fit the narrative and the bordering on desperation to have RUSADA recompliant expressed by various sporting officials in the past few days.
As if this mysterious letter was not enough to get the political slanging match going, the public authorities also accused the sports movement of violating WADA’s compliance rules by attempting to change the RUSADA roadmap.
Government officials lined up to criticise the IOC, alleging they were trying to move the goalposts by casting doubt on the second reinstatement criteria, access to the Moscow Laboratory and the samples and data stored there.
After RUSADA director Yury Ganus had performed a considerable u-turn in calling for the country’s Investigative Committee to open up the Laboratory, Baumann suggested the criteria was unreasonable and was contributing to a growing concern that RUSADA's non-compliance would "drag on and on".
Baumann is certainly a well-spoken individual and he demonstrated that at the Foundation Board meeting when he provided arguably the quote of the entire day.
“We don't challenge the roadmap, we question how long we want to follow it," Baumann said.
“For the next 10, 20, 30 years?
“What exactly are we asking?
“Are we asking the Head of State to come here and personally apologise?”
Yet the public authorities landed blows of their own and ultimately had the final say as a call led by the IOC for RUSADA to be provisionally reinstated was rejected following a recommendation from the Compliance Review Committee that the status quo be maintained.
To continue the sporting analogy, if the exchange between the Governments and sport was a football match, it would have been a thrilling 5-5 draw with plenty of red cards and clashes between the respective managers on the touchline.
Tensions had been simmering under the surface and it was no surprise that it all came out in the open at the meeting, but it was nevertheless fascinating to see the machinations of the anti-doping movement finally come to a head.
Officials on each side lined up to have their two cents' worth in a politically-orchestrated debate which took top billing during the meeting.
It did not end there, however, as the IOC then turned their fire on Helleland and her proposal for a detailed audit of the response from the anti-doping world to the Russian scandal.
To say the Norwegian Minister has ruffled a few feathers would be an understatement and she has become the arch-enemy of the IOC after publicly and inherently criticising the body on numerous occasions during her tenure so far.
Helleland’s latest mission is to conduct a review of the way in which the entire Russian saga was dealt with, which has not sat at all well with the IOC.
She decided to postpone her proposal after it was rejected by the Executive Committee - the public authorities also gave the original outline the thumbs down but claimed to agreed with the concept in principle - and she will now re-jig and re-hash her original document for submission possibly as early as next month.
Rumblings of discontent towards Helleland have grown louder in IOC corridors in recent months and the Norwegian Minister of Children and Equality was left in no doubt as to how she is thought of by those on the opposite site of the growing divide within WADA, brutally exposed by Ricci Bitti during his speech where he confirmed the sports movement’s strong opposition to her plan.
“A call coming from inside WADA is divisive and not completely respectful of all the stuff at WADA,” he said.
“It is a little bit more promotional than practical.”
Looking forward to work with the Goverments to work out a new proposal for a Review. I have today invited the Sport Movement to partner up on this work. The athletes support a Review and I will work hard to get one.@iocmedia https://t.co/XGJL2z1RJq— Linda H. Helleland (@Lindacath) May 17, 2018
While Helleland has born the brunt of her fair share of criticism from the IOC and others since she embarked on her campaign, she does seem to have the interest of the athletes at heart - furthering her own personal ambitions in the process is a bonus - which cannot be said for some of her main detractors.
It was also intriguing to hear the likes of Baumann attack the CRC for making "political decisions" by recommending the suspension of RUSADA remain in place. If ever there was an example of the pot calling the kettle black; after all, the IOC themselves were guilty of the same thing amid their handling of the Russian issue.
It remains to be seen whether the CRC will feel pressured into giving the recommendation the sports movement wants when it meets to discuss this now infamous letter on June 14.
If the IOC and the sports movement get their way, the answer may be just around the corner and it would be interesting to see the reaction of the athlete community when RUSADA does eventually regain compliance.
Judging by the dramatic last few days, it could come sooner rather than later.