IOC lifts Russia ban but compliance questions remain

An investigation exposing systematic state-sponsored doping in Russia and an associated cover-up led the International Olympic Committee to impose a ban on any Russian athletes competing under the country’s flag at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February.

Instead, 169 athletes from Russia were cleared to compete as a neutral team – Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR). Two members of OAR failed drug tests during the Games, but no sooner had the Olympic flame fizzled out than the IOC announced it was lifting the ban on Russia’s Olympic Committee, paving the way for Russian athletes to take part in future Olympics. This followed drug tests for all other OAR athletes coming back negative.

Above - Olivier Niggli of WADA on the consequences of non-compliance (audio) 

This decision to lift the ban was controversial in itself. And some still question the message sent by the IOC allowing athletes from Russia to compete as neutrals in Pyeongchang.

As the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) and its Moscow laboratory remain suspended, Professor Richard McLaren, the lawyer and investigator commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to investigate allegations of Russian state involvement in doping athletes, questions how effective doping controls are today in the country.

‘To what extent is the doping machine actually operating in Russia today? We don’t know the answer to that,’ McLaren tells Global Insight.

The OAR team was less than the 232-strong team in Sochi in 2014, but wasn’t much smaller than the 175 that competed in Vancouver in 2010. ‘When you have RUSADA, whose results management people are not operating because they’ve been suspended, and the limited scope for operating under the supervision of UK Anti-Doping, which means that you have to send the samples out of the country to be tested,’ McLaren says, speaking during an interview in London. ‘I’m not aware of any NADOs [National Anti-Doping Organisations] reporting that they’ve received samples from Russia in the last 18 months for testing. These athletes may be clean, I’m not saying that they aren’t, but all of the normal procedures that would apply say here in the UK or in Canada weren’t operating inside the country.’

Some think the IOC’s decision to reinstate Russia’s membership was taken too quickly, but Olivier Niggli, Director General at WADA, believes it was justified. ‘[The IOC] came to the conclusion that the two positives that they got at the Games were not linked to any systemic doping,’ he tells Global Insight in a telephone interview. ‘What we hope – and this is the positive message we got from the IOC – is that they will continue supporting us in our discussions with Russia, and obviously this goes beyond the Russian Olympic Committee – these are discussions with the [Russian] government – and [we hope] that the IOC will continue to put its weight behind a resolution of the situation.’

Niggli says RUSADA has made considerable progress in recent months, including appointing an independent supervisory board and new director general, but that there is still some way to go before the agency can be declared compliant with the World Anti-Doping Code.

‘‘To what extent is the doping machine actually operating in Russia today? We don’t know the answer to that

Professor Richard McLaren
Co-author, WADA independent commission report on doping and cover-ups in Russian athletics

Two sticking points remain: Russia’s failure to acknowledge the findings of the McLaren investigation or to allow WADA access to samples and data held in the Moscow laboratory. Niggli is hopeful the Russian authorities will do the right thing. ‘I think it’s really a matter of political will and I think it is in Russian athletes’ best interests that this matter be solved,’ he says. ‘Hopefully we will be able to persuade the Russian authorities that what we’re trying to do is help them turn the page, change the culture, change the mentality, get a good anti-doping programme in Russia and work with them in the best interests of this new generation of athletes who have nothing to do with the past and deserve from their country that a proper system be put into place,’ he says.

Education and training has been an integral part of the process to reform RUSADA and Justice Catherine O’Regan, a member of the IBAHRI Council, the IAAF Ethics Board and the World Bank Sanctions Board, believes these are vital tools to prevent doping and corruption from occurring in sport more broadly. ‘There’s the whole question about what systems can we build to make sure that athletes are clean and also that they’re properly educated,’ she says. ‘We need to make sure that there are adequate resources available to ensure that athletes are properly informed and they don’t end up falling foul of anti-doping rules through ignorance or a lack of training.’

WADA’s handling of the Russian scandal has been heavily criticised, but Niggli hopes the new compliance standard – the International Standard for Code Compliance by Signatories (ISCCS) – will ensure the organisation is better prepared in future. ‘When we had the Russian problem there was a question mark as to what was the appropriate sanction and there was a question as to who should be in charge of taking that sanction,’ he says. ‘This created the uncertainty and confusion around the whole Russian file and going forward this will not happen again. For us this is really now a very important piece of regulation which is going to be a big deterrent and if the worst comes to a non-compliance decision then it will allow us to act in an efficient manner.’

The ISCCS came into force on 1 April and contains a clause, which states that only countries whose NADOs are compliant with the WADA Code are eligible to bid to host a world championship or other international sporting event. Thus, from this date, as long as RUSADA remains non-compliant, international federations will be prohibited from granting Russia hosting rights for any international sporting event.

The new regulations do not apply retroactively though, meaning that Russia will still host the 2018 FIFA World Cup in June and July. However, Niggli is confident that FIFA, which has its own doping control officers, will capably oversee the competition. ‘As far as the World Cup is concerned, which was awarded even before non-compliance was declared, we just hope that FIFA will deliver the proper message in terms of play true, fair play and making sure they have a clean World Cup,’ says Niggli.

A spokesperson for FIFA told Global Insight: ‘For the FIFA World Cup in Russia, no Russians will be involved in the implementation of the anti-doping programme and all analysis of doping samples will be done at WADA laboratories outside Russia. A similar protocol was in place at the FIFA Confederations Cup held in Russia in 2017 and all results were negative.’