Column: Russian doping reprieve highlights IOC lack of spine

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Posted: Feb 01, 2018 12:18 PM
Column: Russian doping reprieve highlights IOC lack of spine

Pity any non-Russian athletes heading for the Winter Olympics. The system that should be protecting them from cheating has failed.

Because the IOC lacked the spine to ban Russia outright, the country of the 2014 Sochi Games that will forever be associated with systematic doping and deception will have plenty of athletes to root for in Pyeongchang.

Sure, the Russians in South Korea will not be allowed to wave their flag or be celebrated with their anthem. They'll be called "Olympic Athletes from Russia," rather than Team Russia, and can't have uniforms of Russian red, white and blue.

Big deal.

Far more important for the standing of Russian President Vladimir Putin is that a robust 169 of them still got invites. Although some big Russian names didn't get through the less-than-transparent selection process to weed out those, the IOC said, who weren't "considered clean," they will still be one of the largest contingents at the Feb. 9-25 games. Plenty big enough to make the grotesque subterfuge of Sochi, the tampering with doping-control samples and covering up for Russian cheats, seem not so serious after all. And that is an awful message to send.

Further proof that the International Olympic Committee has made a fiasco of the Sochi dossier, turning what should have been an emblematic watershed in the fight against doping into an embarrassment, came Thursday when sport's highest court reprieved 28 Russian athletes whom the IOC had found guilty of complicity in the Sochi doping program.

Before Russian authorities start claiming the ruling as a vindication, let's make this clear: The Court of Arbitration for Sport didn't say the doping scheme didn't happen, or that it wasn't carefully orchestrated, systematic and carried out with the knowledge of Russian officials.

The broad scope, long history and sophisticated deviousness of Russian cheating have by now been amply documented, by multiple investigations. CAS arbitrators have previously already accepted investigators' findings that cover-ups protected doping Russian athletes, with a 2017 ruling from CAS describing a "state-dictated doping plan or scheme" and a 2016 ruling against Russian weightlifters speaking of "a strong indication" that athletes "were part of a centrally dictated program."

In the latest case, CAS said its arbitrators weren't mandated to decide whether there was an organized doping scheme in Sochi but instead were strictly limited to determining whether evidence used by an IOC disciplinary commission to sanction Russian athletes stood up in court.

In 11 cases, it did; their punishments were upheld with one exception: they're not banned from the Olympics from life, as the IOC wanted, just from those in Pyeongchang.

But for 28 other Russians, the evidence "was found to be insufficient," the CAS said.

Given the certainty that Russian cheating has long been rampant, that is a bloody nose for IOC President Thomas Bach and his policy of Russian appeasement.

The IOC grumblingly suggested in response to the ruling that the court was being excessively tough, requiring "an even higher threshold on the necessary level of evidence" than it had done in the past.

But it was long ago clear to others, including at the World Anti-Doping Agency, that selectively going after individual Russian athletes was going to be risky and that the CAS might not play ball. Because here's the thing about cover-ups: They make evidence disappear.

Often, in their tampering at the lab in Sochi, sample manipulators left traces of their dark work, including minuscule marks on the caps of the supposedly tamper-proof bottles they managed to open. But CAS arbitrators, as is their right, seemingly wanted more. They haven't yet published their full reasoning, but the reprieve for two-thirds of the athletes in this ruling indicates how tough it will be to put back together all the pieces that Russian cover-up artists went to such extreme lengths to hide.

"We can't manage to link what happened in the lab to the athletes," said Claude Ramoni, a Swiss attorney who regularly argues cases at the CAS but wasn't involved in this one. "If the cover up is well done then, by definition, you can't uncover it and that makes the task very difficult."

Which means the onus was always going to be on the IOC to take the Russian bull by the horns and do the right thing: Keep all Russian athletes out of the Pyeongchang Games, a punishment to fit the crime of what its own investigation described this December as an "unprecedented" cheating scheme just four years ago and "exceptional damage to the integrity of the IOC, the Olympic Games and the entire Olympic Movement."

Instead, athletes from Russia — all clean and part of "a new generation," says the IOC — will march at the opening ceremonies and contend for medals on Olympic ice and snow.

Hardly much of a stand.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester@ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester