iStock/Thinktock(MOSCOW) — In an intensely watched decision, sport’s highest appeals court has ruled against Russian track and field athletes seeking to overturn a ban barring them from this summer’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
The ruling is a major setback for Russia as it awaits a decision from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on whether to ban all Russian athletes from the games over alleged state-run doping. This court decision potentially removes a major legal obstacle to the complete ban.
Since the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) on Monday recommended Russia be barred for what it said was an extraordinary state-controlled cover up of doping by Russian athletes, the IOC has faced intense pressure to ban the country from the Olympics.
The decision Thursday is seen as significant because it potentially sets a precedent that collective bans are legitimate and do not necessarily violate individual athletes’ rights, meaning that an IOC ban on Russia from the Olympics could be valid.
With the IOC decision looming, Russian authorities cancelled a traditional ceremonial send-off for the country’s Olympic team on Thursday, saying they would wait to see what happened.
The court decision upholding the track and field ban came from the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne, Switzerland. In a statement read outside the court, it said its three-man tribunal had “confirmed the validity” of a decision that suspended all Russian track and field athletes from competing in Brazil.
The court was ruling on a decision in June by track and field’s top international body, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), to keep Russia’s national track and field federation suspended during Rio. That IAAF decision said the state encouragement of doping in Russian sports was so extensive that no Russian track and field athletes could be permitted to compete at the Olympics, except for those able to meet strict criteria that proved they were clean.
Russia’s Olympic Committee and sixty-eight track and field athletes challenged that suspension on the grounds that it violated individual athletes’ rights, who had never been caught doping. But on Thursday, the CAS ruled the IAAF decision will stand.
The IAAF created the exception for those who could prove they were clean when it imposed the blanket suspension, calling it a “tiny crack” through which a handful of Russian track and field athletes could be allowed compete under a neutral flag — if they could show they were not “tainted” by the country’s systemic doping and could submit sufficient clean tests taken outside Russia. Sixty-seven of the Russian athletes appealed their rejections. But the IAAF though has so far allowed just two athletes through this loophole, rejecting the vast majority of other applications.
The CAS on Thursday also dismissed the appeals of those rejected by IAAF, confirming that virtually Russia’s entire track field team is excluded.
The ruling does not prevent other organization from making their own decisions. The court noted that its ruling was not binding on the IOC and said as the chief organizer it would still be up to the Olympic body to make a final decision on who would attend, leaving open the possibility that some Russian athletes could still be permitted to go.
“The door is open for the IOC to decide, to determine even on a case-by-case principle whether these athletes are eligible or not,” CAS general secretary Mattieu Reeb told reporters outside the court headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland. The tribunal also expressed concern that the IAAF criteria retrospectively requiring Russian athletes to have effectively trained outside the country was not just.
Russian officials nonetheless reacted to the ruling with indignation and largely hopelessness that track and field athletes would go. A spokesman for Russia’s foreign ministry, Maria Zakharova, called it a “crime against sport.”
In a lengthy news conference, Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko said the decision “absolutely violates the rights of clean sportsmen,” and railed against the IAAF, whose former leadership is currently under criminal investigation.
“The International Federation is completely corrupted,” Mutko said on Russian state television. “IAAF’s behavior and stubbornness disturbs me to the depths of my soul. There is a criminal investigation open into its former president.”
Mutko said he thought ruling was “political and without legal basis,” but said it created “some precedent” that could affect the IOC’s decision.
The head of Russia’s track and field federation, Mikhail Butov, told Russian state TV that he thought there was now little chance the block on his athletes competing could be lifted.
The decision is a heavy blow for Russia’s track and field athletes, who insist they were not part of the doping system the country has been accused of running.
Speaking after the decision, the two-time Olympic champion pole-vaulter, Elena Isinbaeva, bitterly thanked the court for “track and field’s funeral” and told the TASS state news agency the ruling was a “purely political order.”
Most of Russia’s track and field athletes were gathered competing at the country’s national track and field competition outside Moscow. High-jumper Maria Kuchina, 23, told R-Sport she still hoped for something and was determined to still show a good result. Kuchina was one of Russia’s best medal hopes and has a clean doping record.
Ekaterina Koneva, a triple-jumper, said the decision made her feel “just emptiness.”
“Complete devastation. There isn’t anything else,” Koneva told the Russian sports site, Championat.ru.
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