Monday 22 October 2018

Winter Olympics ban likely as IOC meet to discuss Russia's doping punishment

Photo: PA
Photo: PA

Matt Slater

Olympic chiefs gather in Lausanne on Tuesday to decide what punishment Russia should get for its endemic doping, with a ban from February's Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang looking likely.

This sanction - once dismissed by International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach as a "nuclear option" with too much "collateral damage" - would mean only carefully-vetted Russians could compete in South Korea, under the Olympic flag, in neutral colours.

For many, this is what should have happened before Rio 2016, when the IOC ruled against such a "collective" punishment, opting instead to leave it up to each sport.

That resulted in the world's biggest country sending an almost full-strength team to Brazil, winning 56 medals, with only track and field's federation the IAAF taking a hard line and limiting them to one neutral athlete.

The International Paralympic Committee followed the IAAF's lead and banned the entire team, but any possibility of the IOC ever taking such a stance seemed unlikely as the circus moved on to Pyeongchang, particularly given Russia's status in winter sports as a broadcaster, competitor, host and sponsor.

That status remains significant - and could still save Russia from an unprecedented Olympic ban for doping - but opinion against its cheating, most notably at the last Winter Games in Sochi, has hardened.

First, law professor Richard McLaren completed his investigation into allegations of state-sponsored doping for the World Anti-Doping Agency in December 2016.

His report supported the claims made by Russian whistle-blowers, particularly the former head of the Moscow anti-doping laboratory Dr Grigory Rodchenkov, who fled Russia in November 2015 and is now in witness protection in the United States.

The evidence uncovered by McLaren, which outlined a four-year conspiracy to dope 1,000 athletes from 30 sports, as well as a plan to sabotage the Sochi anti-doping operation of spy-novel proportions, was passed to two IOC disciplinary commissions set up by Bach.

One, led by IOC member Denis Oswald, was asked to investigate individual Russian athletes at Sochi and has so far banned 25 of them, stripping Russia of 11 medals.

The second, fronted by former Swiss president Samuel Schmid, has looked at the state's involvement in the conspiracy. Its recommendation will be crucial to Russia's fate and its report was handed over to the IOC executive board on Monday.

Russia's response has been consistent from the beginning: there was no state-sponsored doping, any wrongdoing was directed by rogue actors such as Rodchenkov and its record is no worse than any other nation's. But these denials have looked more and more desperate as new revelations have emerged.

In recent weeks, WADA has obtained an electronic record of all the tests conducted at the Moscow lab between 2012 and 2015 and given it to the Schmid commission, which has also seen Rodchenkov's diary with details of meetings he had with sports ministry bosses about the "Sochi plan".

All of this has shifted expectations of what Bach will announce at 6pm UK time in a press conference after a meeting of the IOC's executive board.

With Russian officials threatening to boycott Pyeongchang if its athletes were forced to compete as neutrals, there were rumours at last week's draw for the 2018 World Cup in Moscow that the nation may preemptively pull out to save face.

That seems unlikely now and Russian president Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the TASS news agency there would be no Cold War-style boycott, although Russia "remains unwilling to accept many decisions concerning our athletes that WADA has made".

It is understood Bach himself once favoured a heavy fine as the best sanction, but Russia's refusal to acknowledge its sins, despite the case for the prosecution strengthening with every passing week, could have changed his mind on the collateral risks of the nuclear option.

Press Association

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