The Matt Slater Column: Rio 2016 and the anti-doping moment of truth

As Rio 2016 looms, Press Association’s chief sports reporter does his best to keep up with fast-moving developments in anti-doping.

The Matt Slater Column: Rio 2016 and the anti-doping moment of truth

The Daily Telegraph’s cartoonist, Matt, summed up recent UK news best with a sketch that showed one college student saying to another that they were studying politics: “The course covers the period from 8am on Thursday to lunchtime on Friday.”

It is a sentiment sports hacks trying to keep up with doping developments will understand and – having seen “events, dear boy, events” play havoc with political journalists – this sports hack will not be making any predictions much beyond his next meal. The scandals are shifting too fast.

But a columnist cannot swerve sport’s biggest issues that easily, even if print deadlines bring the risk of ridicule. So here are five things we can say about sport’s doping crisis that should still be true when this issue drops on your doormat.

1) Russian sport’s reliance on performance-enhancing drugs is so ingrained it is going to take a lot more than six months of hard scrubbing to remove it.

Generations of athletes have only known one way and that is to supplement hard work with pharmaceutical aids.

No, Russia is not the only country with a doping problem. Yes, there are Russian sportsmen and women who have competed clean. But Russia’s problem runs deeper than elsewhere and those clean Russians have been let down by the system.

2) The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) under Lord Coe has started to crawl out from under the rocks that were so deservedly heaped on it following the revelation it was in on the fix, too.

Setting up an anti-doping task force to assess Russia’s rehab was smart, just as it was to spell out, in precise detail, all the criteria Russia would have to meet to be welcomed back to the track and field fold.

That process seemed dull at the time but it placed Russia in a bind that got tighter and tighter the more it struggled. Sports minister Vitaly Mutko will have his day at the Court of Arbitration for Sport but he may find it was all there in the small print from the start.

3) So Coe and co’s stock is rising again after Lamine Diack’s downfall but Coe himself has work to do to restore his personal reputation, particularly back home.

The double Olympic 1500m champion will no doubt say he has run rings around his rivals but he has been hurt by his links with Diack and sons during last year’s bruising election race against Sergey Bubka. And even some old friends in Westminster wonder how he could have attended so many IAAF dinners but learned so little about what was really going on.

That said, his resolve on Russia has won over many critics and if he can continue to lead athletics down the road cycling travelled a few years ago, it is possible Coe can get back to the real goal of raising the sport’s profile again.

4) If the last year has been tough on the IAAF, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has not fared much better.

Bach needs Rio 2016 to be credible and incredible.

Some of the criticism it has faced for ignoring warnings from within Russia, leaving the real digging up to the media and letting swathes of the globe just pretend to do drug-testing, has been harsh. Some, however, has not.

WADA could have done more to help brave whistleblowers, and it was slow to realise that a uniform set of anti-doping rules was just a means to an end and the goal of clean(er) sport would require some dirty work, too.

But WADA always has been a compromised and under-funded institution, trapped between governments’ public health messages and sport’s need to keep the show on the road. If it is to be a leader in good governance and sound science it needs more friends, more money and more patience.

5) Much of that could come from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) but right now it is at loggerheads with WADA, which is a worrying state of affairs ahead of the Rio Games.

It was the IOC that launched WADA in the run-up to the Sydney Olympics and it is the IOC that has provided half of its funding ever since, with the rest coming from governments. Two of WADA’s three presidents have been IOC men, including current incumbent Sir Craig Reedie, and the ‘Olympic Movement’ is well represented on its board.

But while Reedie has rallied behind the IAAF in its tough stance on Russia, IOC president Thomas Bach seems more concerned about maintaining Russian relations than sending a clear message against cheating.

You could argue Bach is right to see the bigger picture, as Russia has become the go-to host for sporting events, and brings in a sizeable chunk of broadcast and sponsorship revenue. He also remembers how damaging the tit-for-tat Cold War boycotts were.

But these are critical times for the Olympic brand. Western democracies are struggling to persuade electorates that these untaxed extravaganzas are worth the trouble, the TV audience is ageing and advertisers will go where the action is.

Bach needs Rio 2016 to be credible and incredible. And that means booting out cheats and giving sport’s doping police the tools they need to do the job properly.

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