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How does the International Olympic Committee solve a problem like Russian doping?

How does the International Olympic Committee solve a problem like Russian doping?


With a five-person committee

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Today the International Olympic Committee delayed its decision to ban Russia from this summer's Olympic games. The announcement followed a report released Monday that confirmed the country ran a state-sponsored doping regime during the last two Olympics.

The IOC has assembled a five-person committee that will explore legal options for punishing Russia. That committee is also charged with reinvestigating the World Anti-Doping Agency's report, issued yesterday, as well as determining how to discipline the people named in the WADA report. And any official named in the report — as well as the entirety of the Russian Ministry of Sport — is banned from attending this summer's Olympic games in Rio. Those sanctions may not be limited to Rio, either; the IOC has asked the Olympic winter sports federations to freeze their preparations for any future events that Russia hosts.

The WADA report found that Russia tampered with urine samples stored in bottles previously thought to be tamper-proof during the Sochi games. The report also provided evidence that Russia's cheating went beyond the Sochi games and doping was prevalent in multiple Olympic sports.

Sanctions haven't been determined

Though his agency essentially chose to delay action, IOC president Thomas Bach said in a statement that the organization "will not hesitate to take the toughest sanctions available against any individual or organisation implicated."

Those sanctions are yet to be determined and are heavily dependent on a hearing scheduled this Thursday at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland. This court will be hearing the appeal of 68 Russian athletes who were banned from this year's Olympic games last month by the International Association of Athletics Federations, the body that oversees Olympic track and field competitions. The IAAF had suspended Russia in 2015 following a previous WADA report that revealed orchestrated doping and cover-ups by the Russians.

Dick Pound, a Canadian lawyer who helped found WADA and who led the investigation behind last year's report, saw today's announcement by the IOC's executive counsel as a way of pushing off the decision. "It looks to me like they are not accepting [yesterday's] report at face value and they're ignoring the recommendation of WADA, which is the international organization originally tasked by the IOC to handle all doping matters."

Issuing an outright ban of Russian athletes is not that simple, said Roger Pielke, a professor at the University of Colorado and expert in the history and governance of sports organizations such as the NCAA, FIFA, and the IOC. "If the IOC were to issue a ban, it would be challenged right away by Russian athletes across all of the individual sports federations," Pielke told The Verge. The IOC oversees all of these individual sports federations, which in turn govern the individual sports at the Olympics.

"But there's already a challenge being made this week," said Pielke, referring to the hearing happening in Switzerland at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the organization that handles arbitrations between international sports organizations. "The IOC is putting off making a decision that's already being made."

"The rules are being invented as this unfolds."

Two things could happen at Thursday's hearing. The court could uphold the IAAF's ban on Russian athletes from competing in track and field events in Rio this summer, which would give the IOC reason to believe a collective ban could survive an appeal. But if the court doesn't uphold the IAAF's ban, the opposite could happen since precedence would suggest a collective ban could be overturned.

In light of Monday's report, WADA had recommended that the IOC and the International Paralympic Committee ban all Russian athletes from competing in this year's games. Several other organizations came out in support of a country-wide ban ahead of the release of the investigation, which was led by Richard McLaren, a Canadian lawyer and expert on sports ethics. Travis Tygart, CEO of the US Anti-Doping Agency backed the ban, calling the findings "mind-blowing." Meanwhile, the International Gymnastics Federation argued that only Russian athletes proven of wrongdoing be banned.

"We're in uncharted territory," Pielke said. The rules and procedures that govern organizations like the IOC and WADA give detailed directions on how to treat athletes who are caught doping. But there's no instruction on how to handle an entire country getting caught. "The rules are being invented as this unfolds."