KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY —- Out in the grand arenas, where the sporting action takes place in front of millions around the world, 2016 was the football year of Cristiano Ronaldo and the Olympic year of Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps and Neymar.
But, the credibility of their achievements rested on confidence that their triumphs on the pitch, on the track and in the pool were all achieved within the legality of the rules.
Hence, looking over all of elite sport was a dark cloud cast by a Canadian law professor. His investigative revelations overshadowed the frenetic arrival of Gianni Infantino at the presidency of FIFA and rocked the throne of Thomas Bach at the IOC.
Whether, in the long term, McLaren’s specific accusations to the World Anti-Doping Agency of an organised and institutionalised Russian doping system with its attendant cover-up operation can ever be proved beyond reasonable doubt – the standard for a court of law – is almost secondary.
More important is that he forced mainstream sport to stare down the smoking barrel of a cheating gun: the initial response, with Bach’s International Olympic Committee squirming in political confusion, was not edifying.
Nor does it does it bode well for a more credible, cleaner future. This is the wider significance of McLaren.
Yet no-one should ever forget that – just as with the simultaneous FIFA corruption scandals – it was the media, not the five-star complements of sporting officialdom, which forced action. That was yet another grim failure by sport’s preening presidential peacocks.
First came the German channel ARD’s revelations from Yulia Stepanova; next came the New York Times interview with fleeing Moscow laboratory director Grigory Rodchenkov.
Dick Pound’s initial damning report checked out Stepanova’s story and lifted the lid on murky mayhew in Russia; McLaren followed up by digging into Rodchenkov’s stories of Sochi sorcery.
The Olympic movement would not have been so utterly exposed in doping make-believe if the approaching deadline of the Rio Olympics had not been rolling down Credibility Hill like an unstoppable juggernaut.
It was the lack of time which drew a political rather than a progressive answer with the mixed-message deflection of disciplinary responsibility to the international federations. Once the Games were over a clutch of conferences and committees could be summoned in which the issues might be buried, fudged and forgotten.
FIFA added to the sense of obfuscation with the sudden sacking of WADA board member Jiri Dvorak from his long-term post as medical chief. Dvorak was upset. Was his sin knowing too much? Or not enough?
In the meantime McLaren had another report to write, publish and promenade: in London on Friday, December 9. Black Friday.
This was a report which relied not on verbal testimony but, for those who wanted to delve into the detail, specific charges. Not only the bottle-top tampering but the male dna traced in samples of female hockey players and salt recordings beyond physiological capacity.
McLaren identified no fewer than 30 sports – most notably athletics and then weightlifting – ‘owning’ 580 negative dope tests processed through the Moscow laboratory with what he described as a ‘disappearing positive methodology.’
Along the way McLaren pointed a finger of suspicion at then-Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko (who is also a member of the FIFA and UEFA governing committees and president of football’s 2018 World Cup organising committee).
McLaren named deputy sports minister Yuri Nagornykh and chief anti-doping advisor Natalia Zhelanova as central to this scheme. Both subsequently lost their jobs.
He suggested it was “inconceivable” that Mutko was unaware of what was going on. But neither then or now has McLaren ever pointed a direct finger of blame at Mutko; indeed, in answering reporters’ questions, he has been careful to treat the now-Deputy Prime Minister with caution.
However, back in July, McLaren made no recommendations about action on any level, throwing the entire responsibility to the IOC where Bach was already under ultimately vain pressure from Russia to let its track-and-field athletes circumvent a worldwide IAAF suspension.
In the end, of course, Mutko emerged as something of a hero back in Russia for seeing that most of the country’s sportsmen and women did, indeed, compete in Rio. More, they finished fourth in the medals table – which was no worse than at London 2012.
McLaren’s full and final report was expected in September but then delayed. As he told this writer on the sidelines of an ethics conference in Zurich, the more he investigated so the more he found he needed to investigate further.
Hence it was not until December 9 than the world learned the worst; or, for McLaren sceptics, the larger propaganda plot.
He did not mince his words in London, telling a news conference of “a cover-up that evolved over the years from uncontrolled chaos to an institutionalised and disciplined medal-winning strategy and conspiracy – a cover-up that operated on an unprecedented scale.”
The suggestion was that the Russian system went beyond anything operated in the former Soviet Union and the old and notorious East Germany (though McLaren later sought to row back on such a naked comparison).
McLaren II claimed that Russia’s poor performance at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics prompted the development of a doping and cover-up system which was “refined over the course of its use at London 2012 summer Games, Universiade Games 203, Moscow IAAF World Championships 2013 and the Winter Games in Sochi in 2014.”
More than 1,000 Russian sportsmen and women “had been involved in or benefited from systematic and centralised cover-up and manipulation of the doping control process.”
In all, within the system, “695 Russian athletes and 19 foreign athletes can be identified as part of the manipulations to conceal potentially positive doping control tests.”
Diet of duplicity
Whether they all knew about it McLaren could not say. But he was confident that “well-known and elite level athletes had their initial results automatically falsified . . . for many Russian athletes the eat, sleep, train repeat schedule was supplemented by a regular programme of performance enhancing drugs.”
The system had been refined ahead of the 2012 Olympics hence “the Russian Olympic team corrupted the London Games on an unprecedented scale.”
McLaren appealed for the world of sport to set aside its internal squabbling and unite in the fight against dope cheats. But as long as too many sports directors remain in doping denial, his words of hope will remain stillborn.
The Russians could help themselves if, instead of relying on reactive bluster and blather, they gave the rest of world sport the respect of responding point by point to the accusations. But this they have so far refused to do.
Such paranoia is unfortunate, to say the least. Plenty of major sports nations have had their doping scandals: the United States (remember BALCO?), Spain (remember Dr Fuentes?), Italy (all those cyclists?) and plenty more. There is no singled-out shame. Indeed, Russia would find an enormous well of goodwill out there. World sport needs a powerful, ‘clean’ Russia.
McLaren, in 2016, has asked crucial questions. The credibility of world sport in 2017 depends on how it answers.