Guilty now innocent
Doping bans in international sport is nothing new but that of the guilty being suddenly found innocent is. The curious case of 28 Russian athletes having had their Olympic doping bans overturned, throwing the International Olympic Committee's policy on Russian doping into turmoil is getting curiouser and curiouser. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling on Thursday was set to reinstate Russia seven medals from the 2014 Sochi Olympics, including gold in men's skeleton and men's 50-kilometre cross-country skiing. Eleven more were ruled to have been guilty of doping but had lifetime bans imposed by an International Olympic Committee disciplinary panel two months ago cut to a ban only from the Pyeongchang Games which open Feb 9. The 28 who had their bans lifted could now seek late entry into the Pyeongchang Olympics — suggesting a chaotic few days ahead for the IOC and winter sports governing bodies before the games open about a week from now. In the urgent verdicts announced Thursday, the two CAS judging panels who heard 39 appeal cases last week in Geneva — and took testimony from Russian whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov — did not give detailed reasons. And, therein lies the mystery. "In 28 cases, the evidence collected was found to be insufficient to establish that an anti-doping rule violation (ADRV) was committed by the athletes concerned," the sports court said in a statement. CAS said it "unanimously found that the evidence put forward by the IOC in relation to this matter did not have the same weight in each individual case." The 11 whose appeals were rejected came from men's bobsled, women's cross-country skiing, and women's ice hockey. They included two-time bobsled gold medalist Alexander Zubkov. His re-tested samples had abnormal levels of salt, suggesting his urine tainted with steroid was swapped in the Sochi testing laboratory with previously stored clean urine, as Rodchenkov alleged. Still, the CAS rulings will be seen as a victory for Russia, which has long denied it ran a state-backed doping programme. Small wonder that Kremlin, led by President Vladimir Putin himself, started the celebrations in grand style. "It's a big victory for them and I'm relieved that justice has finally been done," said Philippe Baertsch, a lawyer for the athletes, the 28 who were cleared."This confirms what they've been saying since day one, namely that they are and they've always been clean athletes, and that they were wrongly sanctioned without any evidence." The IOC has already invited 169 Russians to the Pyeonchang Olympics under a neutral flag, but may now be forced to allow in athletes it deems dopers, eight days before the Games begin. It is not immediately clear how many of the 28 Russians would now seek to compete. Some have already retired from competitive sports. Those reinstated at the Sochi Olympics include skeleton gold medalist Alexander Tretiakov and cross-country ski gold medalist Alexander Legkov. Russia may not win back some medals, such as in the men's four-man bobsled, where two crew members were disqualified and two reinstated. Both of the gold medal-winning two-man bobsled crew remain banned. The IOC last year banned 43 Russians over doping offenses at the Sochi Olympics, ruling they had been part of a scheme to dope. What has, understandably, baffled even the IOC is that the Russian director of the laboratory which handled samples for the Sochi Games, Grigory Rodchenkov, said he gave cocktails of banned steroids to athletes and swapped tainted samples for clean urine on orders from Russian state sports officials. The Russian government vehemently denies ever supporting doping. But, of course, they would. If the earlier decision on the ban had not been lifted, the Russians would have competed anyway under a neutral flag. But with the Winter Olympics about to start, such a decision has left even the IOC stumped. So, the CAS, for all practical purposes turns the main arbiter. The IOC is in quite a spot but so are hundreds of thousands of sports enthusiasts.