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Has CAS jeapordised the fight against doping?

With the 2018 Winter Olympics kicking off in PyeongChang today, the headlines and conversation in the run-up have had very little to do with the opening ceremony, or the games themselves.

Instead, the decision on February 1 from the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) to overturn the International Olympic Committee’s suspensions for 28 Russian athletes has been one of the dominant news topics.

The IOC banned 43 Russian athletes for life, following their findings that they had taken part in state sponsored doping between 2011 and 2015 – heavily influencing results at the 2014 Sochi games, hosted by Russia themselves.

CAS made the decision to overturn 18 bans, stating there was insufficient evidence, and partially upheld 11 other appeals. CAS claimed the 11 upheld appeals were cases of evidence “Sufficient to establish an anti-doping rule violation” however; it said the athletes would be “declared ineligible” for this month’s games, as opposed to life time bans.

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While this news has overshadowed the build up to the games, the IOC seems determined to limit its influence over the competitions. The IOC initially stated that the CAS ruling “Does not mean that athletes from the group of 28 will be invited” to the games in PyeongChang. They have since turned down the request of 13 athletes and two coaches to be invited to the 2018 games.

This of course follows Russia as a whole being banned from competing in South Korea. Instead, in January, it was announced 169 athletes from Russia would be permitted to compete under a neutral flag.

Many have found that the decision from CAS could be a major step back in the fight against doping.

An independent investigation, commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA), had found how The Russian state, with the help of the Russian anti-doping agency (RUSADA), had provided banned substances for athletes and helped them cheat tests. In return, athletes paid the state 5% of their earnings.

Doping in sport has had a massive spotlight upon it in recent years. Lance Armstrong’s controversies likely being the only to rival the Russian scandals in terms of news coverage. With such massive attention drawn to the issue, and perhaps the revelation that doping spans more sports and more people than some would expect – the public uproar has only grown.

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Documentaries such as Netflix’s Icarus have shown the public just how deep rooted these issues can be. The failure of both the IOC and WADA to act on tips from Russian insiders has caused massive upset.

The CAS decision has led to many fans of Olympic sports to question if there is really enough being done to prevent cheating in such a manner. If these athletes managed to get off with their alleged doping, what kind of message does that send? Will we see more competitors doping? Taking the risk that they won’t get caught, and even if they do, they might avoid any serious punishment.

On the other hand, CAS may look at their decision as a clear message that fingers may be pointed, but serious punishments like life time bans cannot be handed out without due cause.

Of course Russian representatives and a large portion of the Russian public would claim the allegations were false. They’d create the narrative that there was little evidence to prove such a large amount of doping took place, and especially that it was backed by the government. Instead they might look at it as one or two rouge athletes, taking it upon themselves to dope. Another common allegation from Russian’s is that the scandal was falsified due to other countries jealousy of their nation’s success.

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IOC Chief Thomas Bach has spoken of his dismay at the decision, which generally represents the surprise felt by the majority of none Russians. He said: “We would never have expected this” he continued “We feel this decision shows the urgent need for reforms in the internal structure of CAS.”

As mentioned, the Russian’s themselves have long argued innocence. The Russian sports ministry celebrated the CAS decision, stating that “justice had finally triumphed”. Russian citizens have never really appeared to trust the reports and a survey conducted by the Moscow Times in 2016 showed only 14% of Russians believed their countries athletes were doping in Sochi.

Despite multiple insiders – including Vitaly Stepanov & Grigory Rodchenkov – revealing the existence of state sponsored doping, providing details of the operation, the Russians still heavily deny the claims.

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Stepanov was an employee of the RUSADA; meanwhile Rodchenkov was the head of RUSADA’s lab. Stepanov alleged he had sent WADA 200 emails and 50 letters over the course of three years, exposing details of systemic doping in Russian athletics. Darya Pishchalnikova, a discus player who had her silver medal revoked after failing a drugs test, also attempted to alert WADA to the on goings.

In both instances, WADA took no action. In fact, in the case of Pishchalnikova, WADA redirected her email to Russian sports officials. This led to her ten-year ban, which annulled her results in 2012’s London Olympics and it is widely believed this ban was given in retaliation.

Rodchenkov was the focus of the Netflix documentary Icarus initially looking to help the director of the program to dope in order to win an amateur cycling race. As the film progressed, Rodchenkov reveals more and more about what Russian athletes were doing, and how the Russian government aided them.

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Stepanov was still intent on revealing all on the Russian’s doping despite saying: “even at WADA there are people who don’t want this story out.” He persisted, eventually got in contact with the German broadcaster ARD and featured in its whistle blowing documentary ‘The Doping Secret: How Russia Creates It’s Champions’.

WADA’s chief investigator Jack Robinson contacted journalist Hajo Seppelt, who created the documentary, as he believed media coverage was necessary to force WADA’s hand. Robinson’s plan succeeded, WADA commissioned an investigation, which was led by Dick Pound. It was this investigation which ultimately led to the bans being handed out.

Obviously, very little people want to see Olympians cheating in order to get ahead just like no one wants to see similar work arounds used in all sports. Of course Russia – who have lost 43 Olympic medals due to doping penalisation, and are the nation that have lost the most medals due to doping – are willing to do this for success, but even the Russian public don’t actually want this. Instead the public, as shown by the Moscow times survey, like to convince themselves that their Olympic heroes would never use performance enhancing drugs.

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Not only does this situation send mixed messages to athletes, but also it could signal a future conflict between governing bodies. With clear disagreement between CAS, other bodies the IOC and WADA; this could be a sign of things to come. Evidently there is a disagreement somewhere on what would make evidence qualify as sufficient, with CAS overturning the bans simply because the evidence that convinced both the IOC and WADA was simply not enough for CAS to believe the punishments were justified.

The IOC is waiting to hear the whole reasoning behind CAS’s decision before lodging an appeal. However, it’s clear a large revelation would be required in order for them not to.

The investigation and subsequent bans were seen as major steps in the effort to prevent doping. CAS’s decision could jeopardise the work of the IOC and the whistle-blowers who pulled the curtain back on Russia’s attempts to cheat their opponents, setting the fight against doping back decades.

Written by Lewis Michie

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