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Winter Olympics: why it’s wrong that Russian athletes are guilty until proven innocent

Alexander Tretyakov, one of the Russian athletes whose lifetime ban was overturned in January. CJ Gunther/EPA

Just hours before the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, a group of 47 Russian athletes who had hoped to compete in South Korea, were denied the chance to do so when their appeal was turned down the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

In December 2017, the International Olympic Committe (IOC) banned Russian athletes from competing because of alleged systematic manipulation of the anti-doping system in the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

The IOC made provision for individual Russian athletes who could prove their innocence – by providing evidence from independent testing – to participate as an “Olympic Athlete from Russia” (OAR). There will be 169 Russian athletes competing at the Games under this route. However, this leaves the possibility that there might be innocent athletes who cannot compete because they could not prove their innocence.

The IOC’s decision to ban all Russian athletes until they are proven innocent amounts to a collective punishment of an entire national Olympic team, including coaches and top officials. But based on my ongoing research into the case I believe the initial ban was not supported by solid evidence

Bans and appeals

The 47 Russian athletes and coaches whose last-minute appeals were overturned by CAS on February 9, included a group of 28 athletes whose lifetime bans for doping had been overturned on February 1 by the same court.

After examining 39 cases, and for the first time cross-examining Grigory Rodchenkov – the former director of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, whose whisteblowing led to the bans – CAS overturned 28 lifetime bans, saying there was insufficient evidence that they broke the rules. Those whose bans were lifted included Alexander Tretyakov, who won a skeleton gold at Sochi.

But within hours of announcing the decision, both the IOC and World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) expressed their disappointment with it and called for reforms to CAS.

A few days later, on February 5, the IOC Invitation Review Panel headed by the former French minister of sport Valerie Fourneyron defied CAS’s ruling and said the IOC still had “suspicions about the integrity of these athletes”. It ruled that 15 of the 28 athletes who’d had their bans overturned and who had requested to compete in South Korea would not be able to.

A long road to South Korea. Christian Bruna/EPA

No evidence of ‘state manipulation’

The IOC was careful not to use the word “state-manipulated” system in its December 2017 announcement. But Russian officials, who deny the charges, have said it has been made clear to them that responding to this allegation is a key condition for reinstating the suspended Russian National Olympic Committee.

Following allegations of widespread doping practices made by Rodchenkov in early 2016, WADA launched an inquiry led by the Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren, who is also a CAS member. His findings were published in July 2016.

Despite Russia raising questions over the credibility of the Rodchenkov as a witness, McLaren found he was a credible person, and concluded that:

The surprise result of the Sochi investigation was the revelation of the extent of state oversight and directed control of the Moscow Laboratory in processing, and covering up urine samples of Russian athletes from virtually all sports before and after the Sochi Games.

The political tone of the debate about the report was set several days before its publication in a leaked letter drafted by the chief executive of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), Travis Tygart, and his Canadian counterpart Paul Melia. The letter called for drastic action and to immediately suspend the Russian Olympic and Paralympic Committees from the Olympic Movement. USADA also approached several National Olympic Committees to garner support for the call in a serious serious breach of the independent process of investigation.

It would be naïve to decouple this report and the ban that followed from the current geopolitical context where Russia has been subjected to a systematic campaign of discreditation and political and economic sanctions led by the US.

The word “state” is not used in the second part of McLaren’s report, published in December 2016. The allegation of a state-sponsored programme was quietly dropped, replaced by an allegation of an “institutionalised” doping conspiracy. This important change of wording was also noted by a subsequent report commissioned by the IOC into the case by the former president of Switzerland, Samuel Schmid. He found no evidence in support of McLaren’s initial claims for state involvement.

McLaren had admitted this himself in an interview with Canadian CBC Sport in late 2015: “We don’t have any evidence of a systematic, state-wide doping mechanism. If we did, we would have published it, and so we have to go on the inference.”

A question of integrity

Integrity is the crux of the matter. But it’s a characteristic not only of individuals and organisations, but of the processes involved in how evidence used to make independent, unbiased judgements is acquired. The ends cannot justify the means.

While it claims to be protecting the integrity of sport, I believe the McLaren report and the IOC’s subsequent decisions to ban Russian athletes have actually contributed to undermining it.

A dangerous precedent has been established in international sport policy. Against the norm of international law and the presumption of innocence until proved guilty, a collective punishment has been issued on the entire sport system of a country and its athletes, who were then charged to prove their innocence. This cannot be right.

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