It has taken a real effort of will to break off from festive preparations to pore over more detailed decisions of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Disciplinary Commission sitting in judgement on Russian athletes.
In recent weeks, there have been times when the whole world of sport appears to have been distilled down to a succession of often unfamiliar Russian-sounding names being sanctioned for one alleged doping transgression or another.
After the first few, it is frankly all too easy to switch off. Yet it is important that somebody should be willing to break off from wrapping presents to subject the Oswald Commission’s reasoning to continued scrutiny.
After all, based on the three decisions that I have now gone through line by line – Alexander Legkov (discussed here: here ) Aleksandr Tretiakov and Evgeniy Belov – these are far from open-and-shut cases.
This was to some extent inevitable: if you are dealing with an alleged conspiracy, one of whose aims was to leave no traces, it is scarcely surprising that hard evidence should be tough to come by.
As the Commission puts it in paragraph 111 and 112 of the Belov decision, “A cover-up scheme is by nature and purpose elusive…The evidence of a cover-up is typically either witness evidence or circumstantial evidence from which the application of the process can be inferred.”
So I can accept this, and I can concur that, on the whole, while Russia continues to deny any “state-sponsored or institutional system of doping”, there has been sufficient corroboration of star witness Grigory Rodchenkov’s at first dumbfounding claims to render the main thrust of his story credible (as well as deeply depressing and, I would have thought, utterly infuriating for clean athletes).
Even so, I have been surprised at some of the details the commission has apparently been prepared to discount or overlook in its verdicts regarding these three athletes.
I wrote at length about the cross-country skier Legkov two weeks ago, so I will focus here on the other two: Tretiakov, a gold medal-winning skeleton athlete at Sochi; and Belov, another skier.
Tretiakov’s is what I would describe as the least unconvincing of the three convictions.
But this is down to testimony from Rodchenkov; this seems credible because it is so precise and detailed.
Paragraph 356, for example, recounts how Rodchenkov “recollects a discussion in which the fact that the cocktail worked quite well for the Athlete was specifically mentioned.
“During one of these discussions, Ms Rodionova reported that she was following Tretiakov’s progress when he used the Duchess Cocktail, and that his acceleration speed was increasing by 0.05-0.07 seconds during the training.”
[Rodionova was a Russian official and the Duchess Cocktail a concoction containing banned steroids that, according to the first McLaren report, was "developed" by Rodchenkov.]
Given that Tretiakov’s samples did not contain abnormal salt levels and that no incriminating marks indicating that his sample bottles might have been illicitly opened were found by the Lausanne study commissioned by the IOC, the only other plank in the case against him is the presence of his name on the Duchess List. This was the list of athletes who were allegedly to be protected from any risk of an adverse analytical finding at Sochi.
In these circumstances, it seems less than ideal that, while the list was retrieved from Rodchenkov’s hard drives, Richard McLaren, the “Independent Person” appointed by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to investigate the former Moscow lab director’s allegations, “has indicated that pursuant to the agreement he had with the US authorities, he was not entitled to provide access to the electronic data files”.
And it seems fundamental that Tretiakov’s defence counsel should be able to cross-examine Rodchenkov, whose evidence was provided in a written affidavit supplied three days before the hearing.
“Until very shortly before the hearing, the IOC had been informed that it would not be possible to have direct access to Dr Rodchenkov for the purpose of the Disciplinary Commission proceedings, in any manner or form,” the commission’s decision explains.
“Following indications published in the media that Dr Rodchenkov would nevertheless be available to provide evidence, a direct contact could finally be established with his American counsel.
“Because of the constraints linked to the conditions imposed on any intervention of Dr Rodchenkov on the one hand, and the already mentioned time constraints requiring a resolution of the matters without further delay, the only practicable solution at that stage of the proceedings was the provision of written affidavits”.
I can perfectly well understand why, irrespective of the views of his present US handlers, Rodchenkov might not be at all keen to travel to Switzerland.
But it seems indispensable in cases such as this one that he should be available for cross-examination in the event of an appeal hearing.
Since, if I have understood correctly, Tretiakov participated at the first hearing via videoconference, he would presumably not object if Rodchenkov were made available via the same medium.
Not surprisingly, Tretiakov “heavily” insisted that Rodchenkov’s testimony could not be “held as reliable”.
So much so that the commission felt moved to underline a) that considering him a reliable witness was not “in any way an approval of his past actions and his moral character”, and b) that his actions while director of the Moscow laboratory were “despicable and inexcusable”.
It is undeniable that some of the most piercing insights into doping over the years have come from the confessions of past transgressors.
This surely is all the more reason to insist on the former lab director’s availability for cross-examination in coming appeals where his evidence has been important.
As I was writing this, news broke via my colleague Nick Butler to the effect that an anti-doping hearing panel of the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (IBSF) appears to agree.
The panel decided not to reimpose provisional suspensions on Tretiakov and another Russian athlete, Alexander Zubkov, because the reliance on indirect testimony from Rodchenkov is probably not, it argued, compatible with the principles of international law.
There is, I think, another emerging issue which is better illustrated with reference to the Belov proceedings.
This is what appear to be wide variations in the findings of the two separate studies cataloguing scratches and marks on Sochi sample bottles.
According to paragraph 56 of the Belov decision, bottles containing the three urine samples that he gave between 6 and 15 February 2014 were found by experts mandated by McLaren to have a total of eleven “Type 1 marks” between them, with one of them additionally exhibiting one set of “Type 2A marks”.
Type 1 marks were classified as “impact marks” and Type 2 marks as “scratch marks”.
Yet according to the Lausanne-based team, under Professor Christophe Champod, later commissioned by the IOC, one of the bottles was found to have “one or more isolated T marks”, while on the other two “no T marks were observed”.
This discrepancy needs explaining.
The decision acknowledges that Professor Champod “confirmed that in this case there was indeed more support for a non-opening of the bottle”.
Yet in its ruling, the commission has decided to focus on the single bottle where Champod also identified one or more T marks, arguing “they are marks for which no other known reason than the application of tools of the type used by the expert has been positively established.
The decision adds, with what seems to me almost a journalistic flourish: “These marks are not there by accident.”
That statement occurs in paragraph 355, yet more than 100 paragraphs earlier, in detailing the findings which Champod’s expertise is found to support, the commission asserts: “Regarding samples which were not found with T marks or only with isolated T marks [my italics], no firm conclusion can be drawn.”
Am I the only one who finds it hard to reconcile those two excerpts from the decision?
Moreover, while I can accept the logic of the commission’s inference that Russians allegedly schooled in the surreptitious opening of sample bottles would have become more skilled, and hence left fewer marks, over time, we are talking here about three samples collected in the space of nine days.
So, while I applaud the principle of endeavouring to administer individual justice, rather than invoking a blanket ban, and while I admire the diligence of those attempting to build cases against alleged beneficiaries of the widespread doping in Russia, these three remain, in my view, far from open-and-shut cases.
It will be fascinating to see in what direction events now turn once the festive season is over.