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Russia Doping Ban Is Halved but It Will Miss Next Two Olympics

The ruling reduced a four-year ban to two, but will keep Russian teams out of the next two Olympics and dozens of other global competitions.

Russia’s four-year ban from global sports has been cut in half on Thursday by a court in Switzerland, a decision that could signal the end of its yearslong battle with antidoping regulators who had accused the country of running one of the most sophisticated doping schemes in history in pursuit of sporting glory and Olympic medals.

The decision, issued by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland, the final arbiter on global sports disputes, means Russia will not be able to enter teams in the next two Olympics — the rescheduled Tokyo Games next summer and the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing — or have its anthem or its flag represented at other high-profile competitions. Some Russian athletes will still be allowed to compete at events, but only as neutrals.

The ruling will be viewed as a victory by the World Anti-Doping Agency, the global doping regulator, which was responsible for issuing Russia’s ban last year. And it will mean relief and a degree of satisfaction for officials at the organization who had feared that new rules created in the wake of the Russian scandal, and designed to punish nations involved in state-sponsored doping conspiracies, would not be able to survive the sort of legal onslaught Russia had employed to fight them.

It was unclear why the three-judge panel reduced Russia’s punishment even as it largely agreed with WADA’s arguments in the case. It stressed in its ruling that, while it was reducing the sanctions, Russia should not to claim its decision as any kind of vindication.

“This panel has imposed consequences to reflect the nature and seriousness of the noncompliance and to ensure that the integrity of sport against the scourge of doping is maintained,” the panel’s members wrote.

“The consequences which the Panel has decided to impose are not as extensive as those sought by WADA. This should not, however, be read as any validation of the conduct of RUSADA or the Russian authorities.”

Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, at the 2014 Sochi WInter Games.
Pool photo by Alexei Nikolsky

The ban will run for two years from the Court of Arbitration’s confirmation of the punishment, meaning Russian teams will be barred from not only next summer’s rescheduled 2020 Olympics but also the 2022 Winter Olympics in China, soccer’s World Cup in Qatar that year and a number of other major events.

Russia, a serial bidder for major sporting events, also will be prohibited from hosting world championship-level events for the duration of its ban. The punishment had put in doubt plans for hockey’s 2023 world championship, which is scheduled to be hosted by Russia in St. Petersburg. But those now fall outside the scope of the ban.

Russian athletes will be allowed to participate in events as neutrals provided WADA does not prove any link to the doping scheme that, at its peak, involved agents from Russian’s state security apparatus replacing tainted doping test samples with clean ones during middle-of-the-night operations at the 2014 Winter Olympics. Russia hosted those Games at Sochi, a coastal resort rebuilt at great expense to project the country’s sporting and economic power.

The scheme, which had started years earlier, only came to light after one of its chief architects, Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of a Moscow doping laboratory at the heart of the scandal, revealed what had taken place.

Rodchenkov, now living in an undisclosed location in the United States, revealed how hundreds of tainted antidoping results were manipulated before being entered into official records, protecting athletes from identification and allowing them to benefit from chemically enhanced advantages before heading away to major championship events.

Antidoping investigators recommended a four-year ban after finding that Russian officials had fabricated evidence and manipulated the contents of a drug-testing database in an effort to discredit Rodchenkov and further disguise its conduct. WADA’s board, in a meeting last December, agreed with the recommendation and imposed the four-year ban.

On Thursday, Rodchenkov’s lawyer, Jim Walden, blasted the CAS decision to cut it in half.

“The decision by CAS to effectively split the baby is nonsensical and undeserved,” he said. “Despite overwhelming proof of corruption, doping fraud and obstruction of justice, including a brazen attempt to falsely incriminate Dr. Rodchenkov through fabricated evidence, CAS has once again proven itself unwilling and unable to meaningfully deal with systematic and longstanding criminality by Russia.”

Jonathan Taylor, who led the committee overseeing the Russia investigation and recommended the longer ban, said in an interview that he had mixed feelings about the outcome of the appeal. While the panel accepted WADA’s “overwhelming evidence of tampering” and confirmed that its new sanctioning powers were fit enough to stand scrutiny, he said, he questioned the logic in reducing the penalty.

“The only difference between us is that CAS thought the consequences did not have to go as far as WADA had proposed to deter a repeat of this misconduct by the Russian authorities,” Taylor said. “I hope they are right about that.”

Until WADA’s global sanction was issued, punishments against Russian sports and officials had been sporadic, and largely left to the governing bodies of individual sports. World Athletics, track and field’s governing body, has long taken the hardest line, with a ban that has kept Russia in the sporting wilderness for nearly five years.

The International Olympic Committee, by contrast, has been reluctant to act more broadly, with its president Thomas Bach, repeatedly saying he opposed to collective punishment on Russian athletes. That led to the strange sight of Russia’s fielding one of its largest teams at the 2018 Winter Olympics, where the I.O.C.’s punishment was largely limited to Russian symbols, including its uniform, team name and anthem.

Fabrice Coffrini/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

After those Games, WADA, amid widespread anger from critics that included athlete organizations and national antidoping bodies, updated its rule book, giving it direct sanctioning power for the first time. By then, Russia was no longer disputing the existence of the doping program, and under an agreement signed in 2018, WADA said the country would be able to move on from the scandal provided it supplied unadulterated data from the Moscow laboratory. That data, doping regulators said, would offer the chance to identify hundreds of drugs cheats, and perhaps lift the cloud over those who did not take part.

But Russia’s attempted a cover-up was almost as audacious as its doping scheme. First, it delayed the arrival of experts who had been sent to Moscow to retrieve the lab’s data. Then it engaged in efforts to undermine their work while they were there.

Those efforts included attempts to frame Rodchenkov, the whistle-blower, as the ringleader in a scheme to extort athletes and coaches by threatening to manipulate doping samples; to provide cover for the manipulations of test results within the data set; and to help Russia avoid the most serious penalties.

Investigators quickly discovered the fabrications and the altered test results. And last December, at a packed meeting in Lausanne, WADA issued one of the most severe punishment in global sports history, and then braced for Russia’s legal challenge.

Russia’s determination to overturn the ban was clear by the size of the legal arsenal it wielded at the appeal hearing at the arbitration court last month. It amassed a group of some of the world’s top sports lawyers and was assisted by interventions from a number of sporting bodies, like the world ice hockey federation, with which it maintains close relationships. Its representatives argued that WADA had gone beyond reasonable limits with its punishments, and even beyond what it legally could do within the scope of its statutes.

WADA’s legal team countered by describing its efforts as something akin to a bureaucratic housekeeping, an attempt to bring in-house — and standardize — the sanctioning powers that had been left to individual sports federations.

But they also pointed out the dire consequences of failing to punish Russia for its actions. The country had not only undertaken a doping program that used state resources, including the successor agency to the K.G.B., to accomplish its goals, the lawyers said, but it then used the same forces in a cover-up of its actions.

If WADA is not allowed to police those who break its rules, the lawyers argued, then it will be rendered powerless to stop industrial-scale doping in world sports.

Inside WADA, the court’s verdict was considered to have greater significance than the punishment of one rogue actor. Officials there, while disappointed that the four-year punishment was reduced, celebrated the fact that their case and the system created to tackle nation states involved in doping conspiracies had been vindicated.

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