Geneva, Switzerland, Jan 22 – Dozens of Russian athletes banned by the International Olympic Committee for life over doping began an appeal against their suspension on Monday at the world’s top sports court.
The week-long hearing at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) includes appeals from 39 Russians who competed at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi that were tarnished by a vast, Moscow-backed doping scheme, according to multiple independent investigations.
The mass hearing, less than three weeks before the start of 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, is an extraordinary session for CAS and forced the court to temporarily move from its small headquarters in Lausanne to a large conference centre in Geneva.
The first athletes to appear at the court were speed skaters Alexander Rumyantsev, Artem Kuznetzov and Olga Fatkulina, who arrived smiling with a Russian team hoody protecting her head from the rain.
“Now, I think everything will be fine,” Fatkulina, a silver medallist in Sochi, told reporters.
CAS secretary general Matthieu Reeb told reporters outside the ad hoc court that any athlete who travels to Geneva will be heard “one-by-one during the week”.
“We don’t yet know exactly if they will all show up,” he said.
Another three Russian biathletes who have also appealed against their IOC ban will be heard at a later hearing.
Among the witnesses scheduled to testify is Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of Russia’s anti-doping lab (RUSADA).
He was the key whistleblower who exposed the cheating programme that IOC president Thomas Bach has described as an “unprecedented attack on the integrity of the Olympics”.
But Rodchenkov will not testify in person. Instead, he will appear via video-link from the United States, where he fled after the sudden deaths of two senior ex-RUSADA executives.
Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren has also been announced as a witness.
McLaren authored the report on Russian cheating for the World Anti-Doping Agency that read in part like a Cold War spy novel, and laid out the workings of the programme — from the use of secret state agents to pass urine samples out of testing labs through mouseholes.
But none of the testimony will be open to the public.
– ‘Lack of proof’? –
The Russians are being represented by Swiss law firm Schellenberg Wittmer, which accused the IOC of punishing their clients “despite a lack of evidence and in violation of their fundamental rights”.
In a statement, the firm noted that two winter sport federations — bobsleigh/skeleton and luge — had separately raised concerns about the credibility of the IOC bans and urged CAS judges to follow suit.
The IOC took its action after its own inquiry confirmed evidence revealed in two separate WADA investigations.
Many of the details about Russia’s state-supported doping programme were first uncovered by a groundbreaking German investigation.
– Road to Pyeongchang –
The Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea start on February 9. Twenty-one of the 42 banned Russians say they want to compete.
CAS has said it will deliver a decision between January 29 and February 2.
But even if any of the Russians secure what would be a surprise victory on appeal, the road to Pyeongchang would still remain complicated.
The IOC has banned Russia from the 2018 Games.
Russians who want to compete are being forced to pass a unique set of anti-doping tests.
Those deemed clean will be allowed to appear in Pyeongchang under a neutral flag as an “Olympic Athlete from Russia”.
On Friday, the IOC said the pool of Russians who could potentially be eligible for the 2018 Games had been reduced from 500 to 389.
None of the 42 banned Russians were on the list, making it nearly impossible for any of them to clear their names by the end of the month and then manoeuver their way towards Pyeongchang eligibility by February 9.
Russia’s deputy prime minister responsible for sport Vitaly Mutko — also suspended for life by the IOC over his role in the doping scandal — said last week that he believed around 200 Russians would ultimately be cleared for Pyeongchang.