Russia 'regrets' doping ban ruling but others complain of 'blow to clean athletes'

·4 min read

The Kremlin expressed Russia's disappointment Friday after the decision to halve the country's ban from international sport for doping to two years and allow its athletes to compete as neutrals.

While athletes and anti-doping advocates condemned Thursday's decision, the Kremlin said it regretted that Russia would still be banned and sports organisations scrambled to work out the implications for their competitions.

The Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) on Thursday cut the initial four-year ban imposed by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), citing "matters of proportionality" and the "need to effect cultural change and encourage the next generation of Russian athletes".

"The consequences which the Panel has decided to impose are not as extensive as those sought by WADA," a CAS statement said.

"This should not, however, be read as any validation of the conduct of RUSADA (Russia's anti-doping watchdog) or the Russian authorities."

WADA hit Russia with the four-year ban last year after finding doping data handed over from its Moscow laboratory had been manipulated.

The shortened ban runs until December 16, 2022, encompassing the Tokyo Olympics, Beijing Winter Games and most of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, which runs from November 21 to December 18.

WADA president Witold Banka said he was "disappointed" that the four-year ban was cut, but called the ruling "an important moment for clean sport".

"WADA is pleased to have won this landmark case," Banka said, adding that the verdict "clearly upheld our findings that the Russian authorities brazenly and illegally manipulated the Moscow laboratory data in an effort to cover up an institutionalised doping scheme".

There was strong condemnation from some athletes and sports organisations.

US Anti-Doping Agency chief executive officer Travis Tygart called it a "devastating decision".

- 'Victory for Russia' -

Russia's flag is forbidden, but its athletes will be allowed to compete in a uniform bearing the word "Russia", as long as it also says "neutral athlete", the court said.

President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists on Friday that the Kremlin "regrets" the decision and "treats it negatively".

He said it was "extremely important" that Russian athletes would take part in international competitions to uphold their qualifications and physical shape.

Peskov said that Russia would continue the "fight against doping".

The ruling means Russian government representatives, including Putin, are barred from major international competitions, but they may still attend if invited by the host country's head of state, CAS said.

On Thursday, Mikhail Bukhanov, acting head of RUSADA, said: "Today's results are a victory for Russia."

On Friday, the International Handball Federation, whose 2021 World Cup in Egypt from January 13 to 31, will be the first international competition after the ruling, told AFP that the Russian team "will be allowed to participate", according to "precise conditions currently being worked out".

Russia, 14th in the last handball World Cup, can compete "under a neutral flag", CAS told AFP.

The Russian doping saga erupted in 2016 when Grigory Rodchenkov, the laboratory's former head, blew the whistle over state-backed doping at the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Russian resort of Sochi.

- 'Devastating decision' -

Tygart led a chorus of condemnation of the CAS decision.

"At this stage in this sordid Russian state-sponsored doping affair, now spanning close to a decade, there is no consolation in this weak, watered-down outcome," Tygart said.

He called it "a catastrophic blow to clean athletes, the integrity of sport, and the rule of law" and, in an interview with AFP, said the ruling was a "tragedy" for the global fight against drug cheats.

British Olympic gold medal-winning cyclist Callum Skinner tweeted: "The biggest doping scandal in history goes unpunished," and Global Athlete, which advocates for sportspeople, called the ruling "farcical".

"The fact that Russian Athletes can compete as 'Neutral Athletes from Russia' is another farcical facade that makes a mockery of the system."

"If athletes from Russia can still compete, it is not a sanction. Russia has not been banned; they have simply been rebranded."

Rodchenkov's lawyer Jim Walden slammed the decision, saying it showed the tribunal was "unwilling and unable to meaningfully deal with systematic and long-standing criminality by Russia".

While Thursday's CAS verdict was of paramount importance to Russia, WADA also had plenty on the line.

The organisation, founded in 1999, has been criticised by US lawmakers over its handling of the scandal and failure to implement governance reforms.

The US has threatened to pull its annual $2.7 million financing.