By Callum Murray in PyeongChang
The first day of the International Olympic Committee’s two-day Session here in PyeongChang got off to an explosive and confrontational start as IOC members locked horns over the sensitive issue of the IOC’s response to the Russian doping scandal.
If anyone doubted the seriousness of the challenge that the scandal has posed to the organisation and to the principles of Olympic sport it holds so dear, the sight of IOC president Thomas Bach attempting to maintain order as members delivered their opinions, some of them shaking and sweating with emotion, must have been convincing.
In a series of unprecedented exchanges (for a usually staid organisation), provoked by an intervention by the always outspoken and often provocative Canadian IOC member and former World Anti-Doping Agency president Dick Pound, the Session came close to descending into name-calling and verbal brawling, after Pound contended that “the IOC has failed to protect clean athletes.”
The emotional temperature of the Session had first been raised earlier, when a furious Denis Oswald, the veteran Swiss IOC member and chair of one of the commissions appointed by the IOC to examine the scandal, hit out at “allegations that the IOC set up the cases to fail.”
Oswald was referring to the controversial decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport last week to uphold appeals by 28 out of 39 Russian athletes that had been banned from competing at the forthcoming PyeongChang winter Olympic Games for their part in manipulation of doping samples.
The stunning decision meant that lifetime Olympic bans imposed on the athletes by the IOC were lifted and their results from the Sochi 2014 games have been reinstated.
Some commentators had gone so far as to suggest that the IOC might have imposed the sanctions despite knowing that they would be struck down by CAS, simply with a view to appearing determined and resolute to the outside world.
But Oswald strenuously opposed such an interpretation, saying: “These kinds of allegations, when I see the efforts by the IOC and my commission to test the evidence, are an insult to the IOC, my commission and myself. I am a respected professor of law and never has my credibility been put in question. To read such allegations is totally unacceptable.”
Attempting to explain the CAS decision, which he called “very surprising and shocking,” and which, he said, “I don’t even understand myself,” Oswald put forward two possible reasons for it, in the absence of CAS’s reasoning, which is not due to be delivered until the end of this month, after the winter Olympics have ended:
1. The arbitrators applied a higher standard of proof that that previously adopted by both itself and the Swiss Supreme Court (CAS is based in Lausanne in Switzerland). This point was later contested by Australia’s John Coates, the president of the International Council of Arbitration for Sport, CAS’s governing body, who said: “The standard of proof was ‘comfortable satisfaction’, not higher. That is above ‘the balance as probabilities’, but not as high as the criminal standard of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.
2. CAS failed to consider all of the circumstantial evidence. Oswald said: “If one is not enough, the total convinces. If you have a doubt on one, there are three or four pieces of evidence to convince you that the evidence is valid.”
Oswald concluded: “We will wait for the evidence and decide whether to appeal [to the Swiss Federal Tribunal].”
Pound storm Pound’s intervention raised the stakes again. In a letter to Bach last month he had lashed out at the Russian Olympic Committee and other Russian authorities for their lack of contrition over the scandal, writing: “Every single decision and sanction determined by the IOC has been routinely appealed. That is not the level of conduct that should accompany the magnanimity shown thus far by the IOC.
“In my view, this cannot be accepted. It sends the wrong message to athletes and the world at large concerning the IOC’s commitment to its stated ethical values. We need to include some additional features [ROC sanctions] in order to recover lost ground.”
But now he turned his fire on the IOC itself, saying: “In the collective mind of a significant portion of the world, and in the eyes of athletes, the IOC has failed to protect clean athletes. Athletes measure themselves between what we do and what we say. We talk more than we walk. I don’t think we can talk our way out of this problem. We need to demonstrate we mean what we say.”
Addressing himself directly to Bach, Pound continued: “I’ve written to you, and you and the executive board don’t appreciate the style of my interventions. But we need to move beyond style to substance.”
Two commissions appointed by the IOC to examine the scandal (including the one led by Oswald) simply duplicated the work already done by Richard McLaren, the Canadian law professor who was appointed by WADA to produce two reports that first revealed the extent of the alleged manipulation of doping samples at the Sochi games, Pound contended.
Pound also attacked CAS, saying: “In many other CAS decisions, it accepted the accuracy of the McLaren report. What changed? While the reasons are not released, the outcomes are perverse. We need to know what went wrong, and we shouldn’t be reluctant to appeal to the Swiss Federal Tribunal. We need to ensure that confidence in CAS is maintained.
“We are in trouble now. We need to make it clear that our decisions and actions are based on principles that are different from ‘entertainment sports’. I agree we should encourage Russia to get back into the Olympic family as soon as possible, but not on terms of denial or attack. It’s up to Russia: does it want to be in the Olympic family or not?”
In an accusation that will have incensed some other members, Pound claimed: “Tonally, more attention has been paid to getting athletes into the games than dealing with their conduct. This is not an appropriate response by the IOC to a flagrant attack…"
The response was not long in coming, and was led by Gerardo Werthein, the IOC member from Argentina, who said: “If Mr Pound does not agree with something, then it’s wrong. But this is not Mr Pound’s organisation, it’s the IOC. He goes to the press and creates an environment of doubt that discredits the work done by the IOC. If he disagrees with something, he should take the time to discuss it with all of us, because what he’s doing does not respect us.
“Our job - and especially the doyen [Pound, the IOC’s longest-serving member, is unofficially known by this title] - is to protect the integrity of the organisation. Disagreeing doesn’t mean that what a group of people does is wrong. A tremendous amount has been achieved. The IOC has taken time to get all the proof and has done a tremendous job. So, the quotes of Mr Pound are very unfair to all this work. He should not create doubt.”
Werthein’s comments drew applause from some of his colleagues, but Pound quickly shot back: “It is extremely inappropriate to turn this into an 'ad hominem' attack [one directed at the individual, not at his argument]. The fact I have a different opinion to others, and perhaps even to the all-powerful executive board, does not suggest I’m not entitled to that opinion. I don’t seek the press out; they seek me out. We’ve had 20 months with no opportunity to speak. We are not to be censored from speaking. It’s very inappropriate to suggest that.”
It was left to Bach to try to mediate, albeit he could not resist pointing out to Pound that he had had a variety of opportunities to speak, including Sessions last year in Lausanne and Lima. Bach added: “You are, as always, free to comment at any time. The executive board and IOC always take all interventions into consideration, even if it reflects a minority.”
The Russian view The size of the task still facing the IOC in persuading Russian sporting, as well as political, authorities, that it has dealt fairly with Russian athletes by allowing a limited number of ‘clean’ athletes to compete in PyeongChang, but not in the name of Team Russia, was laid bare by the Russian IOC member Shamil Tarpischev. In a lengthy intervention, he contended that: “We, as IOC members face greater and greater difficulties in explaining our decision. The Russian public wants to hear explanations.”
Tarpischev argued that some Russian athletes that were banned “never committed any violation, so why were they declared unclean?” Moreover, he argued, “After the Olympics they will compete in various competitions against the same athletes [that would have been their rivals in the Olympics]. It is inadmissible that certain athletes suffer without explanation.”
Other Russian athletes, he claimed, that had been formerly sanctioned for doping offences, had been excluded from PyeongChang for that reason, even though athletes from other countries that had been similarly sanctioned were allowed to compete. In these cases, Tarpischev claimed, the principle of ‘double jeopardy’ (not being punished twice for the same misdeed) should apply.
The IOC has controversially suggested that the Russian athletes might be allowed to march in the closing ceremony as a fully-reinstated national team, subject to certain strict criteria, and Tarpischev concluded: “Fighting doping is important, but what is at stake is a specific person who might have just one chance to win a medal at an Olympic Games. We have a great responsibility not to deprive them of this chance, without valid reason. I want to thank the commissions for the tremendous work they have done, which deserves respect, but I hope we manage to comply with our commitments by the end of these games and will see a Russian team with the Russian flag and symbols [at the closing ceremony].”
Bach responded, saying that, given that the Russian Olympic Committee is suspended the fact that Russian athletes are being allowed to compete in any capacity in the games should be regarded as a privilege. He said: “Here we have a difficult situation because in principle suspension of a national Olympic committee would lead to exclusion of all athletes, so the executive board granted a privilege to Russian athletes, which means more than just having the absence of a sanction.”
However, Bach said, those 168 Russian athletes that have been cleared to compete (one has withdrawn) “have more right than any other to claim they are clean because it is only them that undergo such scrutiny. They have the right that their performances and reputations are not tainted by the participation of athletes where there are substantial suspicions.”
As for the closing ceremony, Bach said that the Russian delegation must be seen to comply with the “letter and spirit” of the criteria that have been imposed, and warned that “any action being undertaken now will be taken into consideration by the [IOC’s] implementation group.”