On Friday 17 June 2016 the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), at an extraordinary Council Meeting in Vienna, Austria, took the bold step of maintaining the ban on Russia for not having done enough to convince it that adequate efforts had been made and measures put in place to stop the scourge of doping in the sport of track and field athletics. This means that the vast majority of Russian athletes would certainly not be eligible to participate in the pending European Championships in Amsterdam and the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The decision of the IAAF is in many ways instructive and particularly important for the future, not only of its own sport but global sport more generally.
Importantly, the IAAF’s decision reflects the unwavering commitment of newly elected president, Sebastian Coe, to restore credibility to both the organisation he heads as well as to the sport of track and field athletics.
Over the past several months there has been revelations of what many see as a systematic doping programme in Russia. The popular view appears to be that the doping programme is known to the State. In fact, some believe that the Russian doping programme is actually sponsored by the State – the political administration. Many critics have therefore suggested that the Russian doping programme takes up where the former East Germans left off.
Some readers may recall that following the merger of East and West Germany there were startling revelations of a systematic doping programme that was sponsored by the East German government. Evidence has shown that the programme allowed for the early identification of sport-talented children who were taken from their homes and provided with a doping regimen and athletic training through to the elite performance level that yielded world record holders and Olympic and World Championships medallists in abundance.
The performances of the East German athletes have left many an existing world record in track and field athletics in serious doubt.
While there has been enough evidence on the East German approach to track and field athletics there remains the belief in several quarters that doping may well have been a common feature of former Eastern Bloc countries and their international allies more generally.
The recent fingering of the Russians sparked a new round of controversy in the sport of track and field athletics placing the newly elected president, Coe, on the veritable hot seat.
Accusations about former president of the IAAF, Lamine Diack, and the one-time head of the IAAF’s anti doping programme, Dr Dolle, have indicated that they were well aware of positive drug tests and may have conspired to keep them secret. There are also accusations of possible extortion from athletes who tested positive in return for keeping their test results secret.
The IAAF Council had suspended the Russian Athletics Federation (RusAF) “from membership in November 2015, after a World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) Independent Commission concluded there was a systemic and deeply-rooted culture of doping in Russian athletics”.
The report proved a stinging indictment of the extent of doping by Russian athletes and the collusion of those who were responsible for the nation’s anti-doping programme.
Initially the Russian response to the WADA report and accusations was predictable. They readily denied any wrongdoing and lambasted what they saw as a conspiracy aimed at maligning their own athletics governing body, their anti-doping agency and all of Russia. They accused the IAAF of deliberately targeting Russia while turning a blind-eye to the athletes from countries like the USA and the UK who they claimed were involved in doping for many years.
The IAAF responded quickly banning Russian athletes and establishing specific measures that Russia needed to put in place before consideration could be given to its reinstatement.
Renowned Russian and world pole vault champion, Isinbayeva, has long since threatened to sue the IAAF for loss of i=earnings and violation of her rights should the IAAF ban be maintained.
The IAAF’s decision
The world knew that on 17 June 2016 the IAAF’s Council would “give the RusAF a further opportunity to satisfy the Reinstatement Conditions for IAAF Membership” ahead of the forthcoming review the application of the proposed measures and hear from an Independent Commission on the progress made by the Russian Federation to comply”.
The Council accepted all four of the recommendations of its Taskforce monitoring the verification process. These recommendations are:
- That the Russian Athletics Federation (RusAF) “should not be reinstated to membership at this stage, because several important Verification Criteria have not been met, specifically:
– The deep-seated culture of tolerance (or worse) for doping that led to RusAF being suspended in the first place appears not to have changed materially to date.
– A strong and effective anti-doping infrastructure capable of detecting and deterring doping has still not been created.
– There are detailed allegations, which are already partly substantiated, that the Russian authorities, far from supporting the anti-doping effort, have in fact orchestrated systematic doping and the covering up of adverse analytical findings.
- During the period of suspension “no other representatives of RusAF (i.e. officials, athlete support personnel, etc.) should take part in International Competition or in the affairs of the IAAF.”
- The IAAF Council left a window of opportunity, “to the effect that if there are any individual athletes who can clearly and convincingly show that 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 …they should be able to apply for permission to compete in International Competitions, not for Russia but as a neutral athlete”. Essentially this is in sync with the option of competing under the IOC flag during the Olympics.
- Any individual athlete who has made an extraordinary contribution to the fight against doping in sport should also be able to apply for such permission. In particular, Yuliya Stepanova’s case should be considered favourably.
The IOC’s decision
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) scheduled its own Executive Board meeting and Olympic Summit in Lausanne following the IAAF’s Council meeting in Vienna.
The IOC has made it abundantly clear that the responsibility for determining the eligibility of athletes to compete in any particular sport in the quadrennial Olympic Games is the remit of the respective international federation (IF). This essentially means that the IAAF’s ruling as per its meeting in Vienna on 17 June would be respected by the IOC.
The decision of both the IAAF and the IOC sends a number of abundantly clear messages.
In the case of the IAAF the entire world of athletics must now be aware that the organisation is committed to reinventing itself. Russia has always been a powerhouse in track and field athletics but must now understand that no country is exempt in the fight against doping and the use of illegal methods to gain unfair advantage in the world’s leading sport for individuals. This goes a very long way in addressing the stain that has tarnished the IAAF’s image over the past year in particular.
Seb Coe, the IAAF president, emerges with an enhanced reputation in global sport. He has shown that his pathway is directed by a commitment to the pursuit of truth in an objective manner enough to place investigations into the sport in the hands of independent institutions, allowing the chips to fall where they may. He is not prepared to bow to pressure to act otherwise.
The IOC has shown that it is not prepared to step on the toes of any IF or seek to influence their decision-making in any way. This is a significant boost for the IOC in its relationship with IFs going forward and reflects its own on-going commitment to the fundamentals principles that underscore Olympic Agenda 2020.
Global sport remains under threat. There are athletes and their entourages as well as medical practitioners and scientists who would stop at nothing to prove that they can take the risks attendant to winning at all cost.
The time for the international sports fraternity to come together in pursuit of a level playing field to the extent that it is achievable.