The lawyer of the man who blew the whistle on Russia’s state-sponsored doping programme believes anything other than a ban from February’s Winter Olympics would “embolden the cheats”.
The International Olympic Committee’s executive board meets in Lausanne tomorrow to decide what punishment Russia should get for its flagrant cheating, with a ban from Pyeongchang 2018 looking increasingly likely.
Russia’s systemic doping was brought to the world’s attention over the last three years by several insiders, most notably the ex-director of the Moscow anti-doping laboratory Dr Grigory Rodchenkov.
Having fled to the United States in November 2015, Rodchenkov is now in witness protection and has been cooperating with investigations led by the IOC, World Anti-Doping Agency and other organisations.
Speaking from New York, his lawyer Jim Walden said he believed “too much evidence has come out” for the IOC to impose the sanction many thought was most likely earlier this year, a large fine.
“If they were to do that, it would be incredibly unwise and only embolden the cheats,” said Walden.
“What looks most likely now is that Russia will be prevented from competing officially in Pyeongchang: so no anthem, no flag. But athletes not implicated will be allowed to prove themselves clean so they can compete as individuals.”
This was the option most anti-doping agencies, including WADA, wanted before the Rio Games, only for IOC president Thomas Bach to dismiss this as a “nuclear option” with too much “collateral damage” and an affront to Olympic values.
Only athletics’ world governing body the IAAF and the International Paralympic Committee took such a hard-line stance then – positions they maintain today, with Russia’s national anti-doping agency also still banned by WADA.
Much has changed, though, since the summer of 2016, as Rodchenkov’s version of events was first backed by a WADA investigation conducted by Canadian law professor Richard McLaren, and then corroborated by the release of his diaries and the discovery of an electronic database of every test done by the Moscow lab between 2012 and 2015.
McLaren’s report in December 2016 outlined a four-year conspiracy to dope 1,000 athletes from 30 sports, as well as a plan to sabotage the anti-doping operation at the last Winter Games in Sochi, where Russia initially recorded its greatest winter medal haul of 33 medals.
Bach, however, wanted second and third opinions, so he set up two commissions to examine this evidence. One, led by IOC member Denis Oswald, was asked to investigate individual Russians at Sochi and has so far banned 25 of them, stripping 11 medals. And the second, fronted by former Swiss president Samuel Schmid, has looked at the state’s involvement.
The latter’s recommendation is the most important for Tuesday’s decision and its report was handed over to the IOC executive board on Monday.
When asked for his view on what Bach would do, Walden said: “Bach cannot avoid the evidence. You would have to be blind not to see it.
“He’s a professional and sensible man and, most pertinently, he’s a survivor and if he fails to do the right thing, he won’t survive very long.”
Russia’s response has been consistent from the outset: there was no state-sponsored doping, any wrongdoing was directed by rogue actors such as Rodchenkov and its record is no worse than any other nation’s.
It has also upped the ante by suggesting it will boycott Pyeongchang if its athletes are forced to compete as neutrals, threatened to refuse to release any of the players from its ice hockey league and said its broadcasters may ignore the Games.
Given its status as a competitor, host and sponsor in winter sports, these threats could still save it from a ban, although Bach’s former reluctance to consider “nuclear options” appears to have faded, as does the boycott threat, with Russian president Vladimir Putin’s spokesman telling the TASS news agency on Monday it was not a serious option.
What Rodchenkov wants, Walden said, is for Russia to end its “campaign of obfuscation”, confess, cooperate with the global authorities and move on.
The decision will be announced by Bach in a press conference at 6.30pm, Irish time.