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On track for the Rio Olympics? IAAF ban means Russian athletes may not compete

Sebastian Coe, president of the International Association of Athletics Federations, which has upheld its ban on Russian athletes competing internationally. EPA/Facundo Arrizabalaga

On track for the Rio Olympics? IAAF ban means Russian athletes may not compete

Sebastian Coe, president of the International Association of Athletics Federations, which has upheld its ban on Russian athletes competing internationally. EPA/Facundo Arrizabalaga

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has upheld its ban on the Russian Athletic Federation (RUSAF) from competing in the Rio 2016 Olympics. But the head of the IAAF, Sebastian Coe, said “athletes who are not tested under the Russian system but in systems that have effective anti-doping programs will have their individual cases assessed”.

In November 2015, the IAAF suspended RUSAF from competing in the wake of claims that Russian anti-doping officials, athletes and support personnel were engaged in conduct prejudicial to the interests of fairness in sport.

The ban stemmed from revelations by Russian whistleblowers and the work of investigative journalists in Germany. Their allegations pointed to systemic – even state-sanctioned – doping.

After the ban, RUSAF was provided with a substantial list of “conditions” it needed to meet for reinstatement, but the IAAF is now in unanimous agreement that these have not been met.

Now the body has extended the suspension of RUSAF; its intended effect is that Russian track athletes and support personnel will not be eligible to take part in the 2016 Rio Olympics.

The IAAF move has been described by Richard Ings, former head of the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority, as a “watershed moment in anti doping”. It’s the first time a sport federation has suffered consequences for non-compliance to anti-doping. But will it mean Russian track-and-field athletes have no chance of competing at Rio?

Starting blocks

The ban on RUSAF imposes punishment on an organisation and, by extension, all of the athletes it represents.

The IAAF, anticipating that individuals may argue that it is unfair for them to be made responsible for the failings of a peak body, has already signalled that if athletes can “demonstrably prove” they are clean, then appeals can be made.

Any individual athlete who can clearly and convincingly show they are not tainted by the Russian system because they have been outside the country, and subject to other, effective anti-doping systems (including effective drug-testing), should be able to apply for permission to compete in international competitions, not for Russia but as a neutral athlete.

The Olympic and Russian flags during the closing ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games. EPA/Kay Nietfeld

The proposition alters the normal burden of proof: for an athlete to be found guilty of doping, an adverse finding is needed by an anti-doping authority. In the IAAF’s case, this is not being claimed. Rather, athletes are suspended on suspicion of being complicit in doping, with the accused needing to demonstrate their innocence (or at least distance) from such influence.

This unprecedented situation is set to be a legal and political minefield.

Meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is considering its response. It will meet in Lausanne on June 21, to discuss the RUSAF saga.

Intriguingly, the IOC has the power to either accept or reject the IAAF ruling: the Olympic Games are its event by invitation. The most likely scenario, according to Dan Roan of the BBC, is that the IOC – with the co-operation of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) – will accelerate the appeal process for Russian athletes, while remaining true to the position that RUSAF is banned.

Indeed, CAS secretary-general Matthieu Reeb said “the organisation was prepared to hear urgent cases right up to the opening ceremony in Rio”.

Breaking the tape

The RUSAF case is confounded by some extraordinary failures by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the IAAF, all of which call into question the capacity – and indeed the independence – of organisations that are charged with the ethical management of anti-doping.

On April 30, 2015, WADA president Sir Craig Reedie sent an email to Russia’s most senior anti-doping official with a message of “comfort” that his organisation had no intention of instigating a “clampdown on Russian doping”. Incredibly, this correspondence took place after a German documentary alleging systematic doping in Russia, and featuring athletes who admitted to being part of that regime, was aired.

The IAAF was no better. In January 2016, it expelled four senior officials after it was revealed they conspired to extort money from an athlete who tested positive in return for hiding the adverse findings. The biggest scalp was Lamine Diack, who had been president of the IAAF from 1999 to 2011.

An independent commission established by WADA, headed by the renowned anti-doping advocate Dick Pound, concluded that:

Lamine Diack was responsible for organizing and enabling the conspiracy and corruption that took place in the IAAF. He sanctioned and appears to have had personal knowledge of the fraud and the extortion of athletes carried out by the actions of the informal illegitimate governance structure he put in place.

These examples indicate that, while a focus of concern with RUSAF has been critical, it is also crucial to re-examine the efficacy and trustworthiness of sport officials charged with the management of anti-doping. Russia has serious doping issues, but it would be naïve to make it the scapegoat for global problems of competition integrity.