POSTED: February 11th 2018

JOHN GOODBODY: A sigh of relief as the Winter Games begin

THE JOHN GOODBODY COLUMN / An authoritative and exclusive series from Sports Features Communications

(SFC) Dr. Thomas Bach must be a relieved man. As the Winter Olympics opened in PyeongChang in probably the coldest conditions ever for the quadrennial Games, the President of the International Olympic Committee must be reflecting that the criticism he and his fellow members have received could have been even worse.

As it is, the very fact that North Korea have not only sent a delegation across the demilitarised zone, thereby immediately lessening concern that the communist country would mount another round of sabre-rattling, but also been prepared to march with the South Koreans in the Opening Ceremony has been a plus for the Olympic Movement.

Supporters of Dr Bach, and of the IOC, will point to these Games becoming a rare instance of some harmony between the two parts of the Oriental peninsula, where no peace treaty has ever been signed after hostilities ceased in 1953. And, after a slow start to sales, the South Koreans seem to be eager to buy tickets, with over 80 percent now taken.

If the IOC has justifiably been the subject of scorn over its handling of the Russian doping issue, at least the worst case scenario has been avoided. Yes there will be 168 competitors as 'Olympic Athletes from Russia' but that title fools no one, even if one athlete, speed skater Olga Graf, has declined to take part as a protest at being forced to compete as a neutral athlete. They are Russian and at home, any success will naturally be regarded as a triumph. How can it not be?

However, the situation could have been worse. As the world was preparing to watch the Opening Ceremony, the news came from Lausanne that the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) had turned down the appeal of 45 competitors (plus two coaches) to be allowed to take part in these Winter Games.

The athletes, who will be missing, include some of the most celebrated Olympic champions in recent Russian history, such as short track speed skater, Viktor Ahn, skeleton competitor Alexander Tretiakov and cross-country skier Alexander Legkov.

Among the group were 28 athletes, who had life bans from the Games lifted by the CAS last week. It was surprising that the lawyers advising the IOC did not emphasise to their clients the instances when civil courts have not accepted such a ban as proportionate. Perhaps they did, only for the IOC to ignore any advice.

 Anyway, following that decision, the IOC opted not to extend an invitation to take part in PyeongChang those whose bans had been overturned. It declared the decision "had not lifted the suspicion of doping."

What the CAS primarily does, as an organisation, is to ensure that governing bodies adhere to their   own rules and statutes. It also has to ensure any decisions are fair. So its general secretary, Matthieu Reep, in announcing its decision said that having Russia competing as neutrals was an "eligibility decision."

The CAS also said the two IOC Commissions, which investigated the allegations of malpractice, did not act in a "discriminatory, arbitrary or unfair manner."

Of course, the Swiss law firm Schellenberg Wittner predictably --given the amount of money it has earned from its Russian clients and so needs to justify--declared the decision was "unfair and harmful" and added the athletes concerned had been barred "for no valid reason."

The sigh of relief in PyeongChang must have been considerable. One of those who failed in her appeal was the Russian skeleton athlete, Elena Nikitina, a medallist in Sochi in 2014. American Katie Uhlaender , who lost a medal four years ago by 0.04 seconds, will now be upgraded to bronze.

But she was scarcely euphoric. As she graphically said as she lamented the situation:"We're holding to an Olympic spirit that feels like it's dying."

** JOHN GOODBODY covered the 2016 Olympics for The Sunday Times, his 13th successive Summer Games and is the author of the audio book A History of the Olympics, read by Barry Davies, the BBC commentator. He was Sports News Correspondent of The Times 1986-2007, for whom he received journalistic awards in all three decades on the paper, including Sports Reporter of The Year in 2001.  

****The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sports Features Communications.

Keywords · John Goodbody · Olympics

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