Nick Butler: Russian athletics ban must remain for Rio 2016 if sport is really serious about ending doping

Russia's potential athletics ban from Rio 2016 is still the biggest issue for the likes of IAAF President Sebastian Coe, left, and IOC head Thomas Bach to discuss ahead of Rio 2016 ©Getty Images

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This week’s International Olympic Committee (IOC) Executive Board meeting in Lausanne promises to be the most significant not just of Thomas Bach’s tenure, but perhaps ever since the fateful 1998 affair at which former International Ski Federation President Marc Hodler first alerted the world to the simmering Salt Lake City corruption scandal.

There is a seemingly inexhaustible list of items to discuss.

You could spend a week on Rio 2016 alone; on the lingering worries at venues, on whether the city’s transport system will be able to cope and how to reassure the world following a fresh flurry of Zika virus fears from 150 leading university professors. Then there are the corruption allegations surrounding Lamine Diack and supposed Tokyo 2020 consultants Black Tidings. Speaking of Tokyo, we have the process to confirm the new sports due to appear at those Olympics Games as a crisis meeting is held in an attempt to resolve problems in skateboarding. There is also the small matter of the process to select new IOC members, as well as two new vice-presidents and members of the Executive Board.

But, for most of us, the most important issue is one that may not even lead the agenda but will surely dominate the dark-roomed meetings and clandestine hotel lobby conversations. This is the question of whether or not Russia’s athletics ban from Rio 2016 will remain in place.

A final decision, of course, will be made by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) at their Council meeting in Vienna on June 17. Yet the IOC clearly have a key role to play and will be heavily involved in “suggesting” a solution to Sebastian Coe and his IAAF colleagues.

In recent weeks, the baying press and public has increased its calls for the ban to remain. Some, including United States Anti-Doping Agency chief executive Travis Tygart, have gone a step further and claimed that, if all outstanding allegations are proven, the ban should be extended beyond athletics to all other sports as well. This, clearly, is impossible unless far more investigations are carried out.

But from within the sports world there is more of an awareness that the situation regarding the athletic ban is less than clear-cut, and, even if you ignore the politics of punishing one of the world’s most powerful nations, not an easy decision.

My colleague David Owen pointed out how the ban would likely “deprive honest Russian athletes - unjustly - of what might be their only chance of being part of their sport’s pinnacle event”. Olympic writer Alan Abrahamson made a similar point in a 3WireSports blog post entitled: “The Russians are coming! Or should be” which began with the statement: “Fundamental fairness dictates that the Russians must be allowed to compete in Rio.”

Both writers argue the danger of setting a precedent and punishing supposedly clean athletes. Such a decision would potentially be thwarted by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, Abrahamson argues, while it would be questionable to punish just Russia when so many other countries have serious doping problems. He claims that many see the situation more as an opportunity to punish Russia and its President Vladimir Putin on political grounds, before concluding with a reminder of how unsuccessful past Olympic boycotts have been.

These points are eloquently put and a good counter to some of the more hysterically-reactive arguments seen elsewhere. In my opinion, however, the ban should remain in place - to lift it would be a signal that the sports world will continue to tolerate doping and cheating.

When the IAAF indefinitely suspended the All-Russian Athletic Federation (ARAF) last November, they put forward a list of criteria which had to be met for the ban to be revoked. These concerned different aspects of their testing, inspection and anti-doping systems and in a series of interviews organised by the Sports Ministry’s new communications arm, public relations company Burson-Marsteller, Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko has repeatedly outlined the positive changes supposedly being made.

But UK Anti-Doping, who are currently helping the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, have complained of having their access restricted to certain cities and being asked to provide notice ahead of tests and there are rumblings that the IAAF investigators are less than impressed with changes made. Mutko himself seems to alternate between contriteness and robust denials and criticisms of those acting “with political motivations”. He adopted this latter stance today when questioning the timing of a latest ARD documentary on Russian doping, due to air ahead of the IAAF meeting on June 8.

In the last few weeks, we have had the remarkable latest array of damning allegations surrounding Sochi 2014 made by Moscow Laboratory director Grigory Rodchenkov. Cocktails of steroids mixed with alcohol were given to 15 medal winners, he claims, with fake urine samples fed through a hole-in-the-wall to replace suspect ones. His accusations, it is important to say, are yet to be proven, and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) independent investigation will not be completed until July 15, nearly a month after the decisive IAAF meeting.

But if claims of switching doping samples are true, then it is surely the worst case of cheating ever exposed at an Olympic Games. And regardless of how the allegations concern the Winter rather than the Summer Games, should any decision be made until after this investigation is concluded?

A total of 14 of the 32 positive samples registered after re-testing of Beijing 2008 doping samples were also registered by Russians, they have admitted, as were eight of the 23 at London 2012.

The point is that, while doping elsewhere is bad, what is being alleged in Russia is on a whole other scale. Pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva claimed today that there is "systematic doping" in Britain, Germany, Kenya and the US, but where is the evidence? Okay, there were elements of the WADA Independent Commission report on Russia that were less than black and white, but plenty of the evidence included within the 323-page report was stark and damning. And if the ban is lifted, it would beg the question of what exactly would be required for a suspension to be justified: the whole team being caught injecting EPO (erythropoietin) together with signed confessions and blood bags?

Sport, a world where athletes accept the need for inspectors to turn-up at 6am to collect urine samples even if there are absolutely no suspicions about them, has more of a guilty until proven innocent than innocent until proven guilty approach anyway.

Russia's state-sponsored and wholesale doping is on a level only really seen before in East Germany in the 1970s and 1980s. That never emerged into the public domain until far later, well after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but this time they have clocked-on sooner and the authorities thus have a chance to make a statement.

It would indeed set a huge precedent to ban an entire country’s team from the Games, even if only one sport is affected. But would this be an entirely negative precedent?

Over the last 30 years, sport has been embroiled in a constant battle against doping cheats, and, for all the progress and battles won, the war is still being lost. Take the breakthrough in cycling in 1998 when the Festina scandal broke; the "clean" Lance Armstrong-dominated era that followed was actually the dirtiest yet.

Some are now calling London 2012 the "dirtiest" Games ever. Coe was correct to dispute this claim yesterday by pointing out that if you could re-test samples from the 1980s and 1990s with today’s technology, far more cases would emerge. But the last few years has shown us how far there is still to go.

There is no real carrot to dissuade people from doping; winning a gold medal at whatever cost is too powerful a motivation. So surely the stick needs to be bigger.

We are quick to criticise the IOC for their "holier-than-thou" attitude and frequent questionable stressing of their “zero tolerance” doping approach. But clearly they are in a very difficult position here, and, if the allegations are true, it shows how it is virtually impossible for any sports body to truly eradicate doping. Who knows how many more revelations there are still to come, or how many cases will remain out of the public domain?

And the truth is, that for all the increasing scepticism of the public, they will still crowd around their television sets to witness the men’s 100 metres final at Rio 2016. People still watch, and would always watch, sports tainted by doping, so it is almost understandable that the authorities could prefer to turn a blind-eye than act.

But here, albeit with the help of whistleblowers and journalists, administrators are in the position of being able to make a statement, to make a clear sign that they are not prepared to tolerate cheating on such a scale, even if one of the world’s most powerful countries is at it.

Far from being politically-motivated criticism, would anyone be calling for the ban to be lifted if it was not Russia we were dealing with? No one is calling for an Olympic weightlifting ban against Bulgaria to be lifted, for instance, after it was imposed last year following 11 doping failures.

And yes, clean athletes would be punished. We do not know how many members of the Russian athletics team are innocent of any doping, some certainly. But what about the innocent clean athletes in other countries, the likes of Australian race-walker Jared Tallent, for example, due to belatedly received his London 2012 gold medal on June 17 after being upgraded following a Russian doping failure. He earned two minor medals at Beijing 2008 behind athletes to have served drugs bans at other points in their career. Who knows how many other gold medals he could and maybe should have won?

At school, if someone in the class has misbehaved and the teacher had not found the culprit, the entire class would be given detention unless everyone involved owned up. It is the principal of collective responsibility, also prevalent in struggling businesses or organisations. While not always fair on those who did nothing wrong, it is sometimes the only way.

The legal question is interesting, and if the likes of Isinbayeva were to appeal, she would potentially have a chance of success. A compromise solution and one which appears increasingly possible - even if Isinbayeva has already rejected it - is having clean Russian athletes competing independently under the IOC flag. All coaches and members of their entourage, as well as all members of the Government implicated in the state-supported system - including Mutko and Putin - should surely be banned.

This would allow those as-of-yet untainted by doping to compete while still making a signal against Russia. And that, while difficult, is what is needed here if we are to have any hope of ever eradicating doping in sport.

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