Note: In an interview with the Associated Press which was published the day after this story, IBU President Anders Besseberg suggested that if Russian biathletes’ anti-doping samples from the Sochi Olympics came back positive during the re-testing process, Tyumen’s hosting rights for World Championships 2021 could be revoked.
In July, the McLaren report dropped and the world learned that Russia had implemented a systematic doping program before the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Then, there had been a parallel systematic program to cover it up, directed by Russia’s Ministry of Sport and its state security service. That had led to the infiltration of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on-site anti-doping laboratory.
In the wake of the scandal, the IOC Executive Board suggested several guidelines for how to handle Russian winter sports. Among them was a call on “all International Olympic Winter Sports Federations to freeze their preparations for major events in Russia, such as World Championships, World Cups or other major international competitions under their responsibility, and to actively look for alternative organisers.”
And yet, over the weekend the International Biathlon Union (IBU) Congress, which includes 49 possible voting countries, voted to award 2021 World Championships to Tyumen, Russia. The venue in western Siberia will also host World Cup competitions in March 2017, and 2017 Youth and Junior World Championships in Ostrov, Russia, are also moving ahead as planned.
And the IOC did not object. What changed?
“Not only was it surprising, but it was also shocking that [Tyumen] got 25 votes,” Bernd Eisenbichler, chief of sport for the U.S. Biathlon Association (USBA) and the voting representative for the U.S. at the Congress, said in an interview on Tuesday. “I want to state that it is wrong. It is a very disappointing outcome of the vote.”
“It is a country that is under investigation and the IOC has in fact warned against giving new events to the country — that half of the delegates don’t understand what this means for the young international biathletes is disappointing,” Erlend Slokvik, president of the Norwegian Biathlon Federation, told his country’s NRK television station.
Public vs. private attitudes on Russia
Apparently, while stating one thing publicly – that plans for major competitions in Russia should be frozen – the IOC was telling winter sports federations something different.
“The IOC will not hesitate to take the toughest sanctions available against any individual or organisation implicated,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in July after learning about Russia’s widespread doping at the 2014 Olympics.
Once amongst its stakeholders, the IOC seems to sing a different tune, one which could hardly be described as the “toughest sanctions available.”
Last month, all seven international winter sports federations met with the IOC and World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. All seven had competitions scheduled for Russia in 2017, and they wanted clarification about what to do.
What they got was the go-ahead to continue working with Russian organizing committees.
“They said, all competitions given to Russia which are taking place this winter, they should go on as planned,” IBU President Anders Besseberg told FasterSkier on the phone Tuesday. “This is what the IOC Sport Director clearly stated. About awarding them new competitions, the answer was also very clear. When they applied for this bidding process and it was in progress [before the McLaren report dropped], then this should also go the normal way.”
Secretary General of the International Ski Federation (FIS), Sarah Lewis confirmed this account of events in an email to FasterSkier.
Unlike competitions slated for this winter, 2021 is a long way off. World Championships easily could have gone somewhere else. Although the bid process was already started and Tyumen had filed its candidacy before the McLaren report came out, there were two other cities bidding, Nove Mesto in the Czech Republic and Pokljuka in Slovenia.
Yet sources told InsideTheGames that at the Rio de Janeiro meeting, the IOC specifically said that the Tyumen biathlon bid could go on.
Tyumen’s candidature video for the Congress can be watched on YouTube.
“There were three very correct candidates,” Besseberg said. “And there was a vote.”
When asked about how Tyumen had won the election given the ongoing discussion of sanctions, Besseberg objected.
“I am not the right person to ask,” he said. “It’s the Congress who is the highest authority in the IBU, it is the delegates in the Congress.”
Who voted for Tyumen?
And so, what did the delegates think?
In his remarks to the Congress at its opening, Besseberg explained that Tyumen’s candidacy was not against any IOC guidelines. That caused a stir.
“This was very surprising because there was no official statement by either the IBU or the IOC before the congress,” Eisenbichler said. “I discussed with a few friends in other federations about this topic. I got the sense that we were pretty much in agreement.”
Regardless of IOC rules, some feel that biathlon and cross-country skiing should be especially wary of Russia, since they were acutely stung by the allegations in the McLaren report. That investigation implicated 10 biathletes and 13 cross-country skiers.
“The McLaren report is very clear and detailed about what happened in Sochi and mentions biathlon explicitly as one of the sports,” Eisenbichler wrote in an email. “As long as there are not clear signs, facts and proof about different future behavior, it is not time to have Russia get awarded a Biathlon World Championships.”
There has been no news on re-testing of the anti-doping samples in Sochi, and no revelation of which athletes might have been involved.
Clearly, however, there are two lines of thinking on the matter. There are those, like Eisenbichler and Norway’s Erlend Slokvik, who would never vote for Tyumen.
“The IOC letter, I disagree that the IOC took this step after [previously] declaring that the competitions should be frozen and should not be further planned on,” Eisenbichler said. “I’m not in favor of it. So that did not change anything, that I would vote for it or not.”
Murray Wiley, the president of Biathlon Canada, could not be reached for comment, but Canada’s national-team coach Roddy Ward said he was disappointed with the decision.
“Back here in Canada, we have been discussing where they would move [the Tyumen World Cup weekend] to this winter, given our assumption it must be moved after the McLaren report,” Ward wrote in an email. “After all, how can we race in Russia when that has come to light? However, not only does [the World Cup] remain but the IBU has now rewarded Russia with WCH2021!! This is a massive slap in the face to clean athletes.”
But then there are those who would vote for it.
“Western Europe understands that this is not good for the younger international biathletes,” Slokvik told NRK. “There are many nations that are distraught … It’s the small nations from Asia and the old East block that voted for Tyumen.”
Either way, minds appeared to be made up. After his presentation on the new IOC recommendations, Besseberg said he had welcomed discussion.
“They were asked if they had any questions about it and there was not a single question,” Besseberg said.
Eisenbichler had little doubt that the Tyumen organizing committee would do a good job with the championships.
The venue hosted 2016 Open European Championships, and although neither the U.S. nor Canada attended (nor a number of other countries), reports from those who did compete were positive. Tyumen also hosts a Champions show race, so many top competitors have been there for the cash-rich prize money. Simon and Martin Fourcade of France both tweeted their support for Tyumen along with Antholz, Italy, which was awarded 2020 World Championships.
“Perfect places to race,” tweeted Simon Fourcade.
The local organization is not what concerns Eisenbichler, who heads the U.S. national team along with domestic development.
“Hopefully the future will be showing us that Russia does a different job than they did in Sochi,” he said. “But the McLaren report is very clear. I just think that now, with all the news that we got from the report, it’s the wrong signal to the sports world, to the fans, to the youth athletes, to all the athletes who are fighting for clean sports, that it’s a very wrong signal to reward them right now with that event.”
The biathlon world is also waiting for the other shoe to drop, to find out whether or which of the Russian stars had doped in 2014.
“The McLaren report showed systematic doping in Sochi, with Russian biathlon and x-c implicated,” Ward wrote. “I have been waiting to hear from the IBU how they would respond to the report and I hoped it would be by throwing their weight behind clean sport and punishing Russia… The IBU have made it very clear now that Russia is above anti-doping, that they can get away with anything and that what they did in Sochi totally acceptable.
“Biathlon and all Olympic sport is in a dangerous time,” Ward concluded. “We are losing all credibility. IOC and IBU need to take a strong stand against doping and with the decision to award Russia with [World Championships] they have done the exact opposite.”
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.