February 24, 2018
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“Skating on thin ice” was a good analogy for the Russian doping scandal which led to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) banning it from competing as a team at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

This is like the IOC in a bobsled, hurtling down a dangerous ice track in a run that was bumpy and precarious.

The course could barely have been trickier, despite the them being experts in political manoeuvring.

While the Russian Olympic Committee was suspended, the IOC said it will allow Russian athletes to compete “under strict conditions”. The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), on Wednesday, said it has received 22 appeals from Russian athletes against the bans.

But with the decision to allow some Russian athletes to compete under the Olympic Athlete from Russia (OAR) banner, the IOC drew praise and criticism in equal measure.

If Russian competitors had been banned altogether, the IOC would have risked the wrath of an already agitated President Vladimir Putin, with whom they have somehow managed to keep a relationship despite their own President Thomas Bach calling Russian doping “an unprecedented attack on the integrity of the Olympics”.

But if they had adopted a softer approach to Russia, the critics were ready to be appalled.

If a nation can’t be completely banned for poisoning and corrupting its entire $50bn Olympics to look strong, when can one ever be banned?

The answer: If that nation was weaker than Russia.

Imagine an African nation doping on that scale before a Summer Olympics. Would anyone from that nation have been allowed to compete?

Not just Russia

So where does this leave the Pyeongchang Winter Games scheduled to take place in February, and an Olympic movement that has been massively discredited by the poisoning of Sochi 2014.

It could be argued that less Russians means a great chance of cleaner games. But please let’s not fool ourselves that other nations don’t cheat too.

Many winter sports remain vulnerable to the cheats. An anti-doping expert once told me wisely: “It’s not dope-testing that catches dopers, it’s intelligence.”

By that, the expert meant whistle-blowers like Grigory Rodchenkov, the man at the heart of the corrupt Sochi lab exposed their wrongdoing on a massive scale.

Can Russia ever restore its place and reputation in sport? Eventually, perhaps.

Sochi 2014 and the 2018 football World Cup were designed to put the nation in the spotlight. That spotlight will eventually move giving time to recover.

This won’t happen until after the World Cup tainted by the controversy of the bidding process, allegations of Russian team doping and the remarkable fact the head of the tournament – Vice-President Vitaly Mutko – is now banned from the Olympic movement for his role during the Sochi Games doping scandal.

And let us not forget Russian athletes are still banned from competing, while their entire team faces a ban from Winter Paralympics judging by their ban from disability sport in Rio.

Did the Russian sports strategy spectacularly backfire? It’s not as simple as that.

Putin’s own people, who saw a show of sporting strength and a medal-fest followed by a continuing strategy of denial. It depends where you are consuming this from and what information you are being fed.

Watching the biggest governing bodies in sport trying to deal with any crisis can be painful.

The avoidance, the denials and the fudging. The desperate hope it will ‘all go away’.

But while FIFA ignored the ban on Mutko, reminding us some things will never change in Zurich (where FIFA’s headoffice is), the IOC managed to keep its bobsleigh on course. 

Nobody can accuse it of letting Russia “get away with it”.

The IOC’s ban-on-Russian-flag-but-clean-athletes-welcome decision could never satisfy everyone. The process will be messy and will take too much of the attention from those who deserve it in Pyeongchang.

But none of us envied them having to negotiate this course. 

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