The World Anti-Doping Agency sits in judgement on Russia this week and is beginning to realise that as well as being a catalyst for change, the much lauded McLaren report which claimed to uncover state-assisted doping, is in fact also its biggest problem.
There are those who believe it overstretched itself and that its headline grabbing allegation of a system guided and controlled by the Kremlin has allowed Russia to fight back. And boy does Russia like a fight.
A lot has changed at the Russia Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) in the past 18 months and, according to some close to this transformation, if you employ objective criteria, the Moscow laboratory is as good as it gets.
“The quality of testing and planning is very high.” a senior anti-doping source told me.
The Agency has doubled in size, has had its budget doubled too and is carrying out twice as many tests. It has also built up a team of 50 trained doping control officers, whereas before it had none. As for a much needed cultural shift, there has also been a significant changeover of staff; few remain who were immersed in the bad old ways of doing things.
Outside the lab, this vast country presents practical geographical challenges as does convincing athletes and coaches that an independent organisation (anathema to a population raised under state control) is one that can be trusted.
But it's not these hurdles or RUSADA itself that are the sticking points; largely it is Russia’s refusal to accept the McLaren report due to its most damning claim that the entire doping scandal was orchestrated by the Government.
WADA’s other major gripe is a roomful of samples sitting in Moscow they’d very much like to get their hands on. Russia is in no mood to agree to that.And for those two reasons, not the lab operation, WADA will struggle to justify lifting its suspension despite, ironically, working so hard to get Russia back on track.
WADA revealed last week that thanks to a whistle-blower it had recently obtained data that confirms the McLaren findings. Well, unless this data substantiates that main eye-catching allegation then Russia will not budge.
Sure it is likely to hold details of hundreds of positive Russian tests being covered up but an email directly from the President congratulating staff there for delivering his project? A Smoking Gun? Unlikely.
Whatever the truth, without that evidence, we are not in “beyond reasonable doubt” territory. Russia knows that and is of course prepared to exploit the wriggle room it gives them.
In addition, the data in question is legally speaking stolen property and forms part of a Russian Federal investigation. Those leading that investigation would very much like it back.
As a result, much of the mistrust and misunderstanding that had slowly dissipated has now begun to resurface as we get ever closer to the day when the International Olympic Committee decides Russia’s fate for the Winter Games in South Korea.
Roll in a Russian Presidential election, during which Vladimir Putin will not want to show any sign of weakness, let alone give in to demands for contrition, and you get to understand the current impasse.
There are those within the anti-doping community who want Russia and WADA to find a form of words enabling them to break this stalemate. A statement from the Russian Sports Minister that goes far enough for WADA, but doesn’t humiliate Putin. It’s a game of intractable, high stakes face-saving. They have been burning the diplomatic night oil but no one has yet composed anything that comes close enough to satisfying both sides.
And it’s that stand-off which best illustrates both the strength and weakness of the McLaren report. If it had stopped short of implicating the Top Man then we wouldn’t be where we are now. Heaven knows there was enough proof uncovered at Sochi and elsewhere to rewrite the record books on sporting sanctions without having to drag Putin’s reputation into the whole sorry scandal.
So what are WADA’s options now? Is there a compromise if they’re minded to find one? The answer is yes, of sorts, and they may just take it.It would involve making many encouraging comments about the progress made within RUSADA but conclude there needs to be a longer period of observation before the Agency can be brought back in from the cold. That way, WADA appears strong but appreciative too.
In the mean time they can hammer away at the elusive wording required to appease the conflicting factions. Both will inevitably take some time and move us way beyond the date of the IOC decision.
So, it's now over to you Thomas Bach and we all know which way that is likely to go.