PtG Comment 06.12.2017

The sanctions against Russia: A turning point for the IOC?

After much hesitation, the IOC has taken a clear stance against the overwhelming evidence of systemic doping in Russia. Russia has greater projects in the making than the Winter Olympics, and the ball is rolling towards an uncomfortable FIFA.

With more than 16 months’ delay, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has finally delivered a convincing response to the overwhelming evidence of systemic doping practices in Russian top sport and institutionalised fraud in the country’s anti-doping sector.

The decision taken by the IOC’s Executive Board Tuesday 5 December 2017 to suspend Russia’s National Olympic Committee (ROC), ban the former sports minister Vitaly Mutko for life, sanction a number of top sports officials and invite to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang 2018 only Russian athletes and support staff who can pass a series of criteria and be approved by a special scrutiny panel, may pave a way for the IOC to restore some of its tarnished reputation.

The ban is not without some important symbolic concessions to Russia. Russian athletes will not be able to perform under their flag and be celebrated with the national anthem, but they will be named “Olympic Athletes of Russia”. And if Russia and the athletes abstain from protest actions, they may be allowed to waive the Russian tricolore again already at the closing ceremony of Pyeongchang 2018.

It is nevertheless a firm decision with serious consequences for Russian sport. Politicians, sports officials and athletes are now struck by the kind of sanctions millions of sports fans, thousands of elite athletes and large groups of anti-doping authorities had hoped the IOC would have issued before the Rio Olympics 2016, in the wake of the convincing evidence brought forward by WADA’s investigator, the Canadian lawyer Richard H. McLaren, in the first of his two reports on Russian state-supported doping.

Back in late July 2016, the IOC made a controversial non-decision by leaving the question of suspensions to the international federations responsible for delivering athletes to the games. Today, two IOC commissions have confirmed all substantial evidence that was already at hand before Rio 2016, and the IOC can now claim that it has secured “due process”.

The previous failure of the IOC to take its own stance in this appalling matter and its lack of respect of its own charter and its anti-doping obligations caused a split in the international anti-doping movement that may now be repaired in the spirit of political pragmatism. It is likely that the IOC and its president Thomas Bach have been surprised by the force and duration of the outrage that the non-decision caused worldwide, also among non-Russian athletes that have raised their voices like never before in sports political conflicts.

Finally, the IOC decided to issue a full ban over the Russian Olympic Committee and consequently all athletes and officials under the ROC. But to continue its policy of protecting individual athletes, the IOC has established a selection panel that may decide to invite individual Russian athletes and support staff that can comply with a number of strict criteria. Whoever passes this scrutiny, will be allowed to perform under the Olympic flag and with the status of “Olympic Athlete from Russia (OAR)”.

No interest in hardball

In the weeks leading up to the present IOC decision, Russian officials shifted from a rather conciliatory approach to an aggressive rhetoric, including death threats against whistleblowers, boycott threats against the 2018 Winter Olympics and no less than President Putin’s attempt to dismiss the whole affair as a US-led attempt to destabilise Russia before the general elections next spring.

Russian state TV was the first to respond to the IOC decision shortly after it was announced, by declaring it had no interest in broadcasting the Pyeongchang Olympics, if Team Russia was not taking part. Russian athletes and federations have started internal discussions on whether to go to South Korea or not.

Ski jumper Irina Avvakumova found that competing as a neutral athlete would be without “sport spirit”, according to Russian television RT: “I do not know how other athletes will react, but I did not prepare for so many years to just go and compete without representing my country.” Others were “less patriotic” in the words of RT.

The signals sent by the government and President Vladimir Putin in particular will be decisive. So far, the Russian sports minister Pavel Kolobkov, has reacted cautiously, asking for more time to analyse the IOC’s decision.

The Russian NOC may decide to try an appeal at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, but since CAS in 2016 did support the IAAF and IPC’s more general ban of Russian athletes, it is unlikely that CAS will declare IOC’s decision null and void.

Although the coming weeks will surely feature all kinds of complaints from Russian athletes and authorities, nurturing conspiracy theories and trying to discredit all whistleblowers, journalists and other opponents, it is difficult to see that Russia has a real interest in playing hardball. A boycott or other dramatic steps could harm a sports project of much wider political interest and national prestige than the Winter Olympics: The upcoming FIFA World Cup 2018.

Although this event has nothing to do with the IOC, it is linked to today’s decision by a man wearing several caps: Vitaly Mutko, Deputy Prime Minister of Russia with responsibility for tourism, youth and sport – and President of the Russian Football Federation as well as President of the Local Organising Committee of the 2018 World Cup.

Passing the ball to FIFA

The IOC has banned Vitaly Mutko for life, not because of any specific evidence, but due to his overall political responsibility for the doping fraud that happened on his watch as Sports Minister of the Russian Federation, especially under the Sochi Winter Olympics 2014.

The IOC does not claim Mutko was directing the cheating. Unlike McLaren, the IOC does not describe the doping fraud as “institutionalised” or “state-sponsored”. The IOC has carefully chosen to call it “systemic”, without pointing the finger at who was in charge of the system. But the strongest possible sanction against Mutko is a clear hint from IOC’s side about whom they regard as the chief operator.

IOC President Thomas Bach was not particularly helpful when asked about FIFA’s relation to Mutko at the press meeting announcing the decision: He openly avoided answering.

Thereby he passed the ball over to FIFA who will now mobilise all its spin-doctors to find a credible answer to several poisonous questions:

How can FIFA cooperate with a man that has been banned for life by the Olympic movement that FIFA is a part of? Can FIFA entrust a man who oversaw systemic doping for years to lead the World Cup and Russian football in general? Can Russia, a nation whose sport is officially banned for systemic doping, host the FIFA World Cup.

Will FIFA continue to ignore the claims of the former head of the Moscow anti-doping laboratory, Grigory Rodchenkov, that the Russian national football team has undergone the same systemic doping program as hundreds of other athletes?

Both WADA and the IOC have now confirmed a number of Rodchenkov’s most important claims, in spite of his dubious past, but FIFA has so far refrained from contacting the whistleblower to ask for more specific information.

In short: Will FIFA turn the blind eye to any present or past doping programs of the Russian football team?

Infantino’s Russian dilemma

If it was hard for the IOC to find an appropriate response to fraud executed by one of the superpowers of sport and politics, the challenge seems even harder for FIFA. Moving the World Cup from Russia seems unrealistic on such a short notice, banning the national football team from the host of the World Cup is not a very attractive solution either, and removing a person with such diverse powers as Vitaly Mutko may not even be possible.

The FIFA President Gianni Infantino already owes much gratitude to Russia for his election as FIFA President only one and a half years ago, and his position is hardly strong enough to challenge Russian authorities even a little bit.

Also, IOC President Thomas Bach was elected in 2013 with a combined Arab-Russian support, but he now deserves credit for taking the risk of alienating one half of his constituency. It would appear likely that the Russians will reconsider their support for him, when he seeks re-election for four years in 2021, or – if no alternative candidate can be found – that they will seek to seriously weaken Bach’s position.

However, Thomas Bach has one important card on his hand: The Summer Olympics 2032. When the IOC earlier this year discussed granting the hosting rights of the Summer Olympics 2024 and 2028 in one take, in favour of Paris and Los Angeles, small sounds of discomfort were coming out of St. Petersburg, Vladimir Putin’s old powerbase, that the city considered preparing a bid for 2028.

Russia is probably still keen to host the Summer Olympics 2032, and Sochi or St. Petersburg are strong candidates. The decision must be taken at the IOC session in 2025, at the latest – the session that will be the last under Thomas Bach’s leadership. If, of course, he is re-elected in 2021. So the Russians have a clear incentive to continue supporting Bach if a deal can be struck on the 2032 Olympics.

Thomas Bach has often been criticised – and rightly so – for making ambiguous declarations and decisions that served sinister interests behind a politically correct façade. His highlighted Agenda 2020 programme has had limited impact. His invention of an “Olympic Summit” undermines the legal structures described in IOC’s own charter. And his “110 percent” backing of international athletics in its hard line against Russian doping turned out to be quite the contrary.

But this time Thomas Bach seems to have realised that a clear and unmistakable decision was the only way out for the IOC. The combination of the Russian doping crisis and a great number of legal investigations around the world against high ranking IOC members, some of Bach’s closest allies, has brought the Olympic movement’s reputation to the lowest level in 20 years.

Let us hope the decision to ban Russia can be a turning point for Thomas Bach and the IOC. This and future decisions could at the best inspire the world’s leading sports officials to learn what they always demand from their athletes:

Respect for the rules.