Russia faces Rio reckoning on doping, but with IOC escape route
By Mitch Phillips
(Reuters) - Russia finds out on Friday if the IAAF Council will lift the country's ban from athletics but, even if the vote goes against it, the road to Rio remains open as the IOC will make the final decision on Olympic participation.
Russia was suspended from all track and field in November after an independent report from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) revealed widespread state-sponsored doping.
After a task force reported back that the country appeared to have made little progress on reforms, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) Council voted in March to maintain the ban.
A further meeting was subsequently arranged for Vienna on Friday with the IAAF Council scheduled to vote on whether to lift it.
Any thoughts, though, that Russia may have had about winning over the doubters among the Council members were probably dashed on Wednesday when WADA released another damning report.
It said that Russian athletes have continued to fail drug tests and obstruct doping control officers in the months when they are supposed to be showing that there has been a change of culture in their approach to the problem.
According to the report, Russian athletes returned 52 adverse findings, including 49 for meldonium. It also said there were 23 missed tests, which the report called "significant", 111 whereabouts failures and 736 tests were declined or cancelled.
The IAAF had scheduled the vote for June so that if the ban were to be lifted, Russian athletes would have a reasonable chance to post the Olympic qualifying standards before the July 11 cut-off.
The Russian athletics championships take place from June 20-23 while the European championships, being bypassed by most Rio-bound athletes, are in Amsterdam from July 6-10.
It was widely assumed at the time of the March vote, and indeed suggested by IAAF President Sebastian Coe, that if the suspension was to remain in place after Friday then Russia would automatically be unable to take part in track and field at the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games in August.
However, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has since said that the final decision will be taken by them at a meeting in Lausanne on June 21, amid concerns that clean athletes will suffer for the sins of their team mates and federation.
"I cannot speculate," IOC President Thomas Bach said this month when asked if the IOC would be prepared to overrule the sport's governing body.
"This meeting on the 21st will be to protect the clean athletes and ensure a level playing field for all the athletes participating in Rio," he said.
Many observers took this to mean that the IOC was ready to overturn any IAAF ban, though the idea that athletes who could "prove" they were clean might be invited was widely dismissed, as any who have not tested positive would claim that status.
The IAAF has also given little away this week, saying: "Our Council is meeting to see what progress has been made and to decide whether Russia’s athletes continue to be excluded.
However, Bach's comments have sparked a rash of rumours, speculation and off-the-record whisperings.
Further clouding the issue is the fact that some IAAF Council members -- Sergey Bubka, Nawal El Moutawakel and Frank Fredericks -- are also IOC members.
Bach has had a long and fruitful relationship with Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, not least because of the huge investment the country made to put on the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.
"Putin has 50 billion reasons to expect a favour from the IOC," one source told Reuters, referring the dollar cost of Sochi, and echoing the thoughts of many that the political pressure to include Russia would outweigh the benefit of a ban.
Other sources close to the situation have told Reuters they think Bach’s comments have given the IAAF a clear run to maintain the ban, and the integrity of athletics amid widespread doping problems in other sports, safe in the knowledge that the IOC will effectively overturn it for the Olympics.
Russia says it is being unfairly victimised while other countries that have fallen foul of the WADA's code, including fellow athletics superpowers Kenya and Ethiopia, are free to compete.
Indeed, Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko said on Wednesday his country could take legal action if its athletics federation is not reinstated, Interfax news agency reported.
For former WADA head Dick Pound, who oversaw the review that led to Russia's ban, there can only be one outcome which is that the IOC should support any continuation of the ban.
"There is an interesting constitutional, jurisdictional issue there," Pound told Reuters.
"It would bring up the larger question of who is really running track and field, is it the IAAF or is it the IOC?"
(Additional reporting by Gene Cherry and Jack Stubbs. Editing by Toby Chopra/Ed Osmond)