The prospect of Russian athletes being welcomed back into the fold for the Olympics is causing alarm among rivals, with questions swirling over whether the country can rebuild a credible anti-doping regime in time for Rio.
Track and field has been plunged into the worst crisis in its history over the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) report which uncovered a sophisticated state-supported doping program pervading all levels of Russian athletics.
The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) slapped a provisional suspension on Russia last week while WADA on Thursday (AEDT) suspended the scandal-tainted Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA), ruling it was non-compliant with the body’s code.
Technically, the decision heightens the possibility of Russian athletes being barred from taking part in Rio next year but that eventuality remains remote.
Both the IAAF and WADA have expressed desire to oversee a rehabilitation of anti-doping practices in Russia that brings them back into compliance with global standards.
But the notion of Russian athletes being allowed to compete in Rio has caused disquiet among competitors past and present.
Addressing WADA’s board meeting in Colorado Springs on Thursday (AEDT), US track and field great Ed Moses said he believed Russian athletes should be barred as a deterrent.
“The only sanction is to say that enough is enough. It is to state loudly and clearly that the Russian athletics team cannot go to Rio,” said Moses, who also called for WADA’s independent commission to widen its mandate by investigating doping across all Russian sports.
“I had many close friends who had irreplaceable moments stolen from them,” said Moses, referring to the drug-tainted era of the 1970s and 1980s in which he competed.
“My hope is that there is not a generation of athletes that have their dreams stolen from them too.”
Moses’ comments struck a chord with Kirsty Coventry, the Zimbabwean double 200m backstroke champion from the 2004 and 2008 Olympics who will compete in her final games in Rio.
Coventry, who sits on WADA’s athlete committee, said many fellow swimmers had contacted her to express alarm about Russia, adding she also wanted to see a wider probe into Russian sport.
“There’s a lot of concern. I’ve had a lot of swimmers get in touch with me to ask what can we do,” Coventry said.
“Speaking as an athlete that’s going to be competing in Rio I want to know that I’m competing against clean athletes and not be suspicious.
“It’s my last Olympics and I don’t want to be up there thinking ‘Oh crap, she might be doping’.”
Action, not words, needed from Russian authorities
Drafting a verifiable roadmap back to Russian rehabilitation was seen as the key.
“They have to prove to us in the next six to nine months that there have been drastic changes, actually prove it to us, not just talk words,” Coventry said.
“Whenever there is disciplinary action, in order to climb back you should have to reach specific goals.
“But what does becoming compliant look like? I’m not sure if we’ve figured out what those standards should be.”
Beckie Scott, the former Canadian cross-country skier who chairs WADA’s athlete committee, backed calls for a wider investigation into Russia doping.
“We have been approached from athletes from around the world, and the view we are hearing is ‘Why just athletics? Why not all sports?’,” she said.
“There are a lot of athletes watching and waiting who are counting on the forces of anti-doping to bring their full strength and resolve to this fight.”
WADA member Dick Pound, who chaired the investigation into the scandal, expressed sympathy with athletes seeking a ban, but stressed Russia needed to be given an opportunity to change.
“The objective is to change behaviour, not to go out and do an eye-for-an-eye, and do a punitive thing,” Pound told reporters, rejecting call for a ban.
“But there have to be consequences. There is pressure from our athletes saying ‘That’s not enough.’ But I’m not sure they’re necessarily right.
“I understand why they feel like that but it might not be the right solution. We’ve got to see how Russia responds to this.”