Saturday 15 December 2018

Olympic ban on Russian sports supremo casts dark shadow over next summer’s World Cup

Vitaly Mutko with FIFA President Gianni Infantino in Moscow last Friday. Photo: PA
Vitaly Mutko with FIFA President Gianni Infantino in Moscow last Friday. Photo: PA

Cathal Dennehy

And so, in the wake of widespread evidence of state-sponsored doping, Russia has been banned from the winter Olympics. Their athletes - at least those who make it to Pyeongchang and can prove they weren't complicit in doping - will not wear their national colours, nor will they hear their anthem when the medals are dished out.

And rightly so. After all, this was all-time classic levels of corruption, a doubling down of nefarious behaviour from a nation which organised - and then made a mockery of - the 2014 winter Olympics in Sochi. Good thing they're not hosting anything important soon, right?

In journalism, they always say it's always a bad idea to bury the lede, but those writing for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have never followed such rules.

Because it was eight points into their statement last night before they announced something that should, if FIFA cared about such things, send shockwaves through the world of football: "To exclude the then Minister of Sport, Mr. Vitaly Mutko, and his then Deputy Minister, Mr. Yuri Nagornykh, from any participation in all future Olympic Games."

If that first name sounds familiar, that's because Mutko is Russia's deputy prime minister and the head of the organising committee for next summer's World Cup, a man who - in his role as sports minister in 2014 - oversaw the systematic doping that included more than 1,000 Russian athletes across more than 30 sports.

Mutko was implicated in the conspiracy by Grigory Rodchenkov, the whistle-blowing chemist who revealed the mechanics of Russia's plot to corrupt the winter Olympics in 2014. In a subsequent report by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), an email was uncovered showing Mutko giving an order to save a banned Russian player from a failed drugs test. Think about that: a politician with the power to make a positive test disappear.

And now he's the man in charge of hosting football's biggest event, the one where doping has long been talked about being prevalent but rarely showed its face, save for the occasional case like Diego Maradona's positive test at the World Cup in 1994.

At the draw in Moscow last Friday, Russia was given a curiously easy group alongside Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uruguay, and while some were quick to shout conspiracy, those cries of outrage would be far better targeted at the team themselves and the men behind them.

Yes, they may be ranked a lowly 65th in the world at the moment, but let's not forget that Russia's entire 23-man squad from the 2014 World Cup remains under investigation for doping by FIFA.

In the McLaren report into Russian doping undertaken by Wada, it was claimed that at least 11 positive tests among Russian footballers had been covered up.

Last week FIFA said in a statement it was working in close collaboration with WADA "following their guidance and exploring every possible avenue," which sounds an awful lot like an organisation looking to buy time.

Because if we've learned one thing from sport in recent years, it's that there's no value in looking beneath the covers - at least not financially.

If Russia was willing to dope up its high jumpers, ice skaters, weightlifters and even its bobsleigh athletes, then it stands to reason that the footballers might have also taken a hit of the same juice before making their way to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup.

Last week FIFA president Gianni Infantino ruled out a Russian Olympic ban having any impact on the country's hosting of the World Cup, while sitting, conveniently enough, beside Mutko.

"We don't know what the IOC is going to say," said Mutko. "We hope common sense will prevail."

It has - though not in the way Mutko was thinking.

The problem here is that looking to FIFA for an ethical stand is like looking to a bear for gymnastics. It's not that it can't, it's just that it almost certainly won't.

FIFA is still in the process of finding out the truth about Russia's football team, or so it tells us, but if proof emerges that they were also 'roided up to the eyeballs - and that coaches and administrators were also in on it - will they be excluded from their own party next June?

And knowing what we know, should this party even go ahead? The IOC, at long last, has sent a message to the world of sport, however ironic it is to portray them as any kind of moral crusader.

Now it's FIFA's turn. Don't hold your breath.

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