By Gene Cherry
(Reuters) - Hot on the heels of another damning report on Russian doping, the sporting superpower will discover on Friday whether its ban from athletics will be lifted, allowing a return to competition in time to take part in the Rio Olympics.
The vote, by the Council of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) in Vienna, should in theory be decisive but the International Olympic Committee (IOC), concerned about innocent athletes being punished, has said it might yet overrule when it meets the following week.
"No one wants to see even one innocent athlete suffer in this, but such blatant disregard for the rules of our sport and the concept of fair play should receive a strong message that it will not be tolerated," British world marathon record holder Paula Radcliffe told Reuters on Thursday.
Russia was suspended from all track and field by the (IAAF) in November after an independent report from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) revealed widespread state-sponsored doping.
A task force has been studying how much reform Russia has made, but any thoughts that the country may have had about winning over doubters were probably dashed on Wednesday when WADA released another report containing extraordinary accounts of the lengths some athletes have gone to avoid being tested.
It said that Russian athletes have continued to fail drug tests in large numbers and obstruct doping control officers in the months when they are supposed to be showing there has been a change of culture in their approach to the problem.
"Whether or not the IOC choose to punish and investigate further (since clearly this was never limited to track and field but rather all Russian sport) I feel the IAAF has to be strong on this," Radcliffe said in an email after the WADA report.
"The message needs to get out loud and clear - We will not tolerate cheats in our sport and will take strong action to protect the rights of the clean athletes to compete on a fair and level playing field."
Canada's athletics federation also urged a tough stand, saying on Thursday that Russian track and field athletes should not be allowed to compete at Rio.
"Athletics Canada feels strongly there is little evidence of a reversal in a systematic and deep rooted doping culture in Russian Athletics, and therefore there is no justification to grant re-inclusion," chief executive Rob Guy said in an open letter to IAAF president Sebastian Coe.
Russia, though, says it is being unfairly victimized, while other countries that have fallen foul of the WADA code, including distance running specialists Kenya and Ethiopia, are free to compete.
Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko said on Wednesday his country could take legal action if its athletics federation is not reinstated, Interfax news agency reported.
How the IAAF and IOC act most likely could be a defining moment in the fight against doping, long-term observers have said.
"My gut feeling is that some of the folks in the IOC bubble have no sense of the collective outrage if it makes the wrong decision," Dick Pound, a long-standing IOC member and co-author of the report that led to Russia's ban, told Reuters.
"It is not like we are talking about Sierra Leone here."
The IOC has called an Olympic Summit for June 21 in Lausanne to decide on Russia's participation, when other issues, such as claims of a complex system to beat the anti-doping system at the Sochi Winter Olympics, will also be on the table.
"I cannot speculate," IOC president Thomas Bach said this month when asked if his organization would be prepared to overrule the IAAF.
"This meeting on the 21st will be to protect the clean athletes and ensure a level playing field for all the athletes participating in Rio."
(Writing by Gene Cherry; Writing by Mitch Phillips; Editing by Ken Ferris)