Shades of meaning, and a path forward

It’s a familiar refrain that in long-lasting marriages the husband wakes up every morning and, first thing, says to his loving bride: I’m sorry. For what? Anything. Everything. Whatever.

In American public life, meanwhile, there is a familiar — expected if not demanded — ritual of contrition that must be performed as a condition of potential redemption. First and foremost: there must be an apology. Those two words — I’m sorry — must be said in earnest and, similarly, meant for real. 

This brings us to international relations, in this context sports politics, in particular the sporting authorities who operate in the Olympic space, almost all of whom are connected to their governments in some or significant fashion. Such diplomacy rarely comes packaged in a simple declarative as straightforward as, I’m sorry. Diplomacy relies on semantics, on nuance, on shades of meaning.

These things make the International Olympic Committee go around. They make the World Anti-Doping Agency work, too. To pretend otherwise is to ignore reality.  

 WADA's Olivier Niggli and Craig Reedie earlier this year // Getty Images

WADA's Olivier Niggli and Craig Reedie earlier this year // Getty Images

In that spirit, a recent letter sent by senior Russian authorities to WADA president Craig Reedie — with copies to IOC president Thomas Bach and International Paralympic Committee president Andrew Parsons — offers everyone a way forward in a multilayered dispute that has been going on now for years. To pretend otherwise is, similarly, to ignore reality.

“The serious crisis that has affected the Russian sports,” the letter says via translation from the original Russian, “was caused by some unacceptable manipulations of the anti-doping system revealed in the investigations conducted under the auspices of WADA (Pound’s Independent Commission, McLaren - Independent Person) and the IOC (the Schmid Commission).”

Another key sentence, two paragraphs later: 

“On behalf of all the organizations which we represent, we regret sincerely that some manipulations and practices occurred in Russia.”

This is about as close as you are going to get in this situation to ‘I’m sorry.’ It’s unrealistic and, to be frank, counter-productive to expect — or demand — more. What would be the point?

What’s fascinating, of course, is that after months — indeed, years — of the most severe criticism from media outlets across the west, the Russians now come forward with a document that unequivocally says, in its way, OK, let’s figure out how to get this resolved. So where are the media reports touting what would seem movement toward just that?

Go ahead — Google away. 

Few and far between in English-language outlets, to be sure, and the press does itself no favors when the spotlight is on before the 2018 Winter Games with outrage levels off the charts, and here it is just a few months later and the Russians act in apparent good faith and goodwill and — what?

To deconstruct this letter is to understand how keenly the Russians are, for very public consumption, aiming for resolution. 

To be honest, a lot of this is just basics — who, what, when, where, why and how.

Who wrote this letter? 

It is signed by Russia’s new minister of sport, Pavel Kolobkov; along with the outgoing president of the Russian Olympic Committee, Alexander Zhukov; and the president of the Russian Paralympic Committee, Vladimir Lukin.

When and where was it delivered?

Just days before the May 16-17 meeting in Montreal of WADA's executive committee and foundation board. 

Note: it was addressed to Reedie. 

But cc’d to Bach and Parsons. 

Some very smart people, including IOC member Patrick Baumann, who also sits on the 12-member WADA executive committee, understand fully what’s what. At those meetings, he asked the larger (38-person) foundation board how much longer this thing is going to drag on.

So it can be understood fully: Baumann absolutely has a mind of his own and can speak for himself. At the same time, when he speaks for the record in this sort of situation, it carries more weight than usual because he is one of the IOC’s rising personalities — head of the commission that last year evaluated Paris and Los Angeles for 2024 and 2028 and now overseer of the LA 28 coordination committee. By anyone’s measure, come 2025 he would be on the short list of candidates for next president of the IOC.

“We don’t challenge the roadmap,” he said, and more on that in a moment. “We question how long we want to follow it. What, for the next 10, 20, 30 years? What are we asking?

“Are we asking the head of state to come here and personally apologize?”

Not hardly. Not when you’ve got this letter. 

Now for the guts of the letter: what, why and how. 

The Russians need to get compliant.

Let’s say that again: for everyone’s sake, and please note the cc’s in that letter, the Russians need to be compliant with the world's anti-doping rules and regulations. For its part, the IOC reinstated the Russian Olympic Committee Feb. 28, after the remaining tests from the PyeongChang Games proved negative.

Last November, WADA set forth what it called a “roadmap.” You can read it in detail here.

For all the roadmap’s many points, two matter most:

1. The “responsible authorities” in Russia “must publicly acknowledge the reported outcomes” of the McLaren investigations. This includes the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, the Ministry of Sport and the Russian Olympic Committee.

2. WADA needs access to the Moscow lab.

This letter essentially satisfies No. 1. 

For those who want to say, no, it doesn’t — again, reality check.

The Russians are never, ever going to acknowledge the precise language of the McLaren reports themselves — that there was “institutionalized manipulation,” per the second report, or a “state-directed failsafe system,” as described in the first

This, again, is where one turns to the art and craft in diplomacy — in the presentation and interpretation of words.

And all around, because there yet remains a great deal to be explained about the key actor in this entire drama, about motive, intent and perhaps much more. 

As the letter points out, after the appropriate focus first on the central issues, the recently decided Court of Arbitration cases rightfully cast “reasonable doubt” on the “validity of evidence” provided by the former head of the Moscow lab, Grigory Rodchenkov, for some unexplained reason being protected by the American authorities.

In that context, a highlight from paragraph 307 of the Legkov case: “I do not give a fuck about fighting the doping,” Rodchenkov saying in a 2017 video, acknowledging under cross-examination to the CAS tribunal that he had for sure said it when speaking with a friend but done so “in [an] emotional context.” Timeline reminder: Rodchenkov flew to the United States in 2015, purportedly free on American soil to speak the truth. Basic courtroom rule: when someone says something in an emotional context, it’s deemed all the more likely to be true. This is a fundamental that’s taught as an exception to the rules of hearsay.

Note the obvious in this new letter: 

Vitaly Mutko, the former sports minister, now with a new portfolio, is nowhere near this document. “We want to assure you that any eventual manipulations and practices were carried out without our knowledge or authorization,” the letter says.

To reiterate a point made in this space time and again, the word “state” in this context is susceptible to a variety of meanings. One interpretation would point to the top of the organizational chart. Like, up to the very, very top. No way, literally zero, the Russians would or could ever accept that. 

In this context, it is vital to note three points, both noted in the IOC’s Schmid report, made public last December.

The first two were spelled out in a speech made March 1, 2017, by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, speaking at a meeting in preparation for the 2019 Winter University Games in Krasnoyarsk, Russia.

One, per Putin: “… in Russia there has never been and, I hope, will never be a state-supported doping system …”

Two, a conclusion reached by the Schmid commission: “The [commission] has not found any documented, independent and impartial evidence confirming the support or the knowledge of this system by the highest State authority.”

Three, again per Putin: “… our anti-doping system failed, it is our fault, we should spell it out and admit it.” 

Back to the Schmid report: "On many occasions, reference" — here meaning "allegation" — "was made on the involvement at the Minister of Sport’s level, but no indication, independent or impartial evidence appeared to corroborate any involvement or knowledge at a higher level of the State.”

Critically, the very next paragraph: “This assertion is confirmed by Prof. Richard McLaren’s change of wording in his final Report: in his Preliminary Report, he considered the existence of a ‘State-dictated failsafe system,’ including the activity of the Moscow Laboratory operating ‘under State-directed oversight and control of its anti-doping operational system’; but, in his Final Report, he amended the wording to ‘An institutional conspiracy existed across summer and winter sports athletes who participated with Russian officials within the Ministry of Sport and its infrastructure, such as the RUSADA, CSP and the Moscow Laboratory, along with the FSB for the purposes of manipulating doping controls,’ ” CSP meaning the national Center of Sports Preparation and FSB the Russian federal security service. 

Elsewhere in the second report, McLaren turned to shorthand, and that’s why the term has become the second report’s key phrase: “institutionalized manipulation.”

Last December, the IOC executive board suspended the Russian Olympic Committee based on the Schmid inquiry. The letter says, “We have accepted and executed this IOC EB decision based on the findings of the Schmid Commission.”

What is the essential Schmid finding? That there was “systemic manipulation of the anti-doping rules and system in Russia.”

Words. Shades of meaning. 

“Institutionalized manipulation.” 

“Unacceptable manipulations.”

“Systemic manipulation.”

Ladies and gentlemen, and especially those who are native English speakers, you are now being given this test: distinguish between those three. Here is your college blue book. You have an hour. Go.

Once your BS meter from college essay-writing days is done — you see that we have essentially arrived at the same place.

With an accompanying expression from the Russians of sincere regret.

So, for those who would see reality for what it is, moving along — entree into the lab. 

If WADA doesn’t get into the lab sooner than later, it’s well known there would be a disagreement between the sports movement and — this is key — some governments over what to do.

Emphasis on "some."

Again, because it’s essential to perceive the world as it really is:

Not all governments are anti-Russia. 

Not hardly.