The global organization that oversees track and field is expected to decide Friday whether to restore the eligibility of Russia’s suspended team before the Rio Olympics in August, following multiple reports of systemic, state-sponsored drug cheating. But as International Association of Athletics Federations council members meet in Vienna, significant questions remain about the organization itself, which has been implicated in the same far-reaching doping scandal.
In January, a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) investigation concluded that a “powerful rogue group” in the IAAF had extorted athletes and allowed Russian doping to continue unabated for years. A former IAAF president faces criminal corruption charges in France in connection with the scandal, a former IAAF treasurer has been banned from the organization for life, and just last week, the IAAF suspended its current president’s chief of staff, Nick Davies, as it investigates allegations that Davies took money to cover up Russian doping violations.
Russian officials have acknowledged doping problems on the nation’s Olympic teams but deny any government involvement. WADA is investigating allegations made by a former Russian anti-doping doctor that his government bosses condoned and supported both drug cheating and testing sabotage, but that investigation will not be concluded until mid-July.
Russia’s track and field team currently is suspended from international competition, a penalty the IAAF imposed in November after a previous WADA investigation found widespread drug cheating among the nation’s track athletes. At some point this week in Vienna, a five-member IAAF task force will update the entire council (there are 27 members; it’s unclear how many will be in attendance) on Russia’s progress in reforming its anti-doping operations.
There are no other IAAF council meetings scheduled between now and August’s Summer Games in Rio, so a decision to maintain the suspension on Russia effectively will bar the nation’s track and field team from the Olympics. An IAAF spokesman said a decision should be announced at a Friday news conference in Vienna.
While Russian officials have publicly pledged that they have met all of the IAAF’s terms, others in the anti-doping community are skeptical. Travis Tygart, chief executive of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, has called for Russia’s track athletes to be barred from Rio and for all Russian Olympic athletes to be banned from competition if allegations of government involvement in doping are found to be true.
The vote will be an early test for IAAF President Sebastian Coe, the former British Olympic runner who took over the job last year from Lamine Diack, who was indicted in France last November and charged with money laundering and corruption in connection with allegations he took bribes to cover up doping cases.
In an interview last week, Dick Pound, the former WADA president whose investigation found corruption was “embedded” in the IAAF, said he felt Coe could be trusted to reform the organization. While Coe and others probably knew about allegations of Russian drug cheating for years, Pound said, former IAAF president Diack told them he was handling things appropriately.
“When that issue [of Russian doping] was raised in council, you’d have Diack saying, ‘We’re aware of that, it’s a very serious problem, and you can all rest assured the IAAF rules will be applied,’ ” Pound said. “They were getting that assurance from leadership.”
Diack has denied the charges of corruption, as has his son, Papa Massata Diack, a former IAAF marketing consultant also criminally charged in France but avoiding extradition in his native Senegal. Pound’s investigation likewise implicated former IAAF treasurer Valentin Balakhnichev, the former president of Russia’s track and field federation. The IAAF has banned Balakhnichev for life.
If the IAAF council votes to maintain the suspension of Russia, the nation’s sports ministry could appeal a decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, an international body created to settle disputes of this nature. In the meantime, some Russian athletes have said they would individually pursue legal action if their team is banned from Rio.
There’s also the possibility that the International Olympic Committee steps in and arranges some kind of compromise, regardless of what the IAAF decides. IOC President Thomas Bach, who has a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, has implied in public statements that individual athletes from a banned track team could still compete in Rio.
Each additional revelation in the Russian doping scandal — from the fact that WADA waited four years to investigate a whistleblower’s claims to the allegations of IAAF officials covering up doping cases for cash — has only further eroded public trust in the organizations that are supposed to police Olympic sports.
“It raises questions about the entire superstructure of anti-doping,” said Roger Pielke Jr., a University of Colorado professor who studies the governance of sports organizations. “The bigger context here is: Are we focused on a decision that is inside of a process that is just fundamentally broken?”