By Tariq Panja
The letters arrive at the Court of Arbitration for Sport almost every day now. Sometimes there is more than one.
Much of the correspondence comes from the Russian Olympic Committee, which is asking the court to overturn, or reduce, the four-year ban from global sports that was imposed on it late last year by the World Anti-Doping Agency. But there are also letters from organizations with an interest in the outcome and from others widely viewed as friendly to Russia: ice hockey’s governing body, the European Olympic Committees, and the Global Association of International Sports Federations, an influential umbrella group for governing bodies and event organizers.
For weeks now, the senders have peppered the court with so-called interventions related to Russia’s case — questions about procedure, requests for clarification, routine process queries. But according to people familiar with the correspondence, the volume has slowed the arbitration process so much that the prospect of the Russian doping scandal’s bleeding into a third straight Olympics is growing.
Without a final verdict from the court, the top one for international sports, it may be impossible to enforce the ban — imposed after Russia was accused of running the biggest doping scandal in sports history and then trying to cover it up — at the Tokyo Olympics this summer.
The court said on Thursday that the panel of arbitrators overseeing the case had agreed to add five organizations and several Russian athletes as intervening parties.
“A procedural timetable for the filing of written submissions has been established and will run until mid-April 2020,” the court said in a statement.
“Directions with respect to the holding of a hearing will be issued at a later stage,” it added, saying that the hearing would not take place before the end of April and would not be held in public.
For now, the court has provisionally set aside five days for a hearing that could take place between April 26 and May 8. But those dates could slip further as the interventions at the court mount.
“Procedural aspects may delay the substantive part of the case,” said Gregory Ioannidis, a British sports lawyer who has been involved in several cases at the court. A final decision could take as long as four months after the hearing, he said — potentially pushing a resolution well past the start of the games in late July.
Russia is being represented by Schellenberg Wittmer, a law firm based in Geneva that has defended several Russian athletes accused of doping. Philippe Bärtsch, a managing partner at the firm who has represented Russia in doping cases, did not respond to an email seeking comment.
The World Anti-Doping Agency and the International Olympic Committee also declined to comment.
Without a resolution, Russian officials, Russian uniforms and the Russian flag could be permitted in Tokyo, and the IOC would face another tense and fractious buildup to a games because of the seemingly endless fallout from a scandal that is now in its fifth year.
Russia STILL trying to run rings around WADA with go slow doping appeal, raising prospect of more Russian-inspired chaos before an Olympic Games
— tariq panja (@tariqpanja) February 28, 2020
The current penalties against Russia, which on paper is the strictest ever issued, were imposed after WADA determined that Russian officials had manipulated and erased data that might have finally allowed doping investigators to confirm the identities of potentially hundreds of drug cheats.
Under the terms of the penalties, Russia could not have a team at the world championships of any major sport and would also be barred for two Olympics, though it left open the possibility that individual Russian athletes could still compete.
Failure to make a decision before the Tokyo Games would therefore create further confusion, with IOC officials suggesting that the matter would be in WADA’s hands and WADA officials indicating that entrance criteria should be determined by the IOC. Both organizations declined to comment.
If the ban is not upheld in time for Tokyo, any ruling confirmed later would affect the Paris Olympics in 2024, as well as the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
“I don’t know which situation is better in this quite bad situation,” Margarita Pakhnotskaya, the deputy general director of Russia’s banned anti-doping agency, said in a telephone interview. “It’s like having to choose between something quite bad and something worse.”
Pakhnotskaya said the continuing uncertainty was becoming a problem for Russian athletes who could be permitted to attend the games. While WADA punished Russia — its national Olympic committee and government officials are barred from the games, pending the appeal — it stopped short of a blanket ban on all Russian athletes, drawing criticism from some in the anti-doping movement. The criteria for those athletes who could be eligible have yet to be agreed upon, Pakhnotskaya said, and any lengthy delay in a final judgment could cause them to fail to meet the required standards.
“A few weeks and days are not enough days to fulfill criteria,” Pakhnotskaya said, calling the current situation “confusing.”
As well as questions from lawyers representing Russia, the court has been fielding questions from other organizations.
The International Ice Hockey Federation has close ties to Russia, where it hosts several events, and its president, René Fasel, has been supportive of Russia, even suggesting that he was considering taking up a post there once his term ended later this year.
A spokesman for the hockey federation said its involvement was limited to the impact any penalties would have on its operations and that it was not addressing the merits of the case.
Russia also has an influential presence at the European Olympic Committees, having won both European Games events the organization has staged. Its president, Janez Kocijancic from Slovenia, said his organization was “not taking sides” but was committed to supporting the Russian Olympic Committee as one of its member organizations.
Kocijancic claimed he had seen “no evidence” that suggested that the Russian Olympic Committee had done anything wrong. “We therefore wish to see justice prevail, and that all those who are guilty of doping offenses be punished without exception, while all those who are innocent be spared punishment,” he said.
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