RIO DE JANEIRO — IOC President Thomas Bach defended the decision not to ban Russia’s entire team from the Rio Games, declaring Sunday that the doping crisis won’t damage the Olympic body’s credibility and taking a swipe at global anti-doping officials for failing to act sooner against state-sponsored cheating in Russia.
Speaking at a news conference five days before the opening of the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Bach said a total ban on Russia for systematic doping “would not be justifiable” on either moral or legal grounds.
“Every human being is entitled to certain rights of natural justice,” said Bach, who also denied suggestions he had bowed to pressure from the Russian government to reject calls by anti-doping authorities for a complete ban.
Bach was peppered with questions about the International Olympic Committee’s handling of the Russian scandal, including the decision to give international sports federations the authority to decide which Russian athletes should be cleared to compete in Rio.
Asked whether the ruling represented a failure by the IOC, Bach said: “No. This is for very obvious reasons.”
Bach said the IOC had set a “very high bar” by imposing strict conditions on the entry of Russians, including a ban on any athletes with prior doping sanctions.
More than 100 Russian athletes — including the track and field team — have been excluded, with more than 250 declared eligible by the federations.
With the games opening Friday, it remains uncertain exactly how many Russians will be competing. Some have filed appeals against their bans.
“I don’t think that this in the end will be damaging because people will realize we have to take this decision now,” Bach said. “Imagine if we had not taken a decision, what limbo we would be in then.
“I trust the people realize the difficulties we are in, that they realize that it was not an easy decision to take, and that they realize we did our best to address this situation in a way which allows to protect all clean athletes all over the world,” he added.
The IOC on Saturday set up a “review panel” consisting of three executive board members who will have the final say on which Russians are let into the games, based on advice from an independent expert appointed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Bach and the IOC have been heavily criticized by anti-doping bodies, athletes’ groups and Western media for not imposing a total ban on Russia.
Pressure for a complete ban followed a World Anti-Doping Agency report by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren that accused Russia’s sports ministry of overseeing a vast doping conspiracy involving the country’s summer and winter sports athletes.
Despite the backlash against the IOC decision, Bach said the committee had “broad support” across the Olympic movement, including from national Olympic committees and sports federations.
“Of course the negative opinions are most likely to be quoted,” he said.
Bach took a shot at WADA, which was set up by the IOC in 1999, for not having acted earlier on whistleblower evidence of widespread doping in Russia. He also questioned why WADA had accredited the Moscow and Sochi doping labs at the centre of the scandal.
“The IOC is not responsible for the timing of the McLaren report,” Bach said. “The IOC is not responsible for the fact that different information which was offered to WADA already a couple of years ago was not followed up. The IOC is not responsible for the accreditation or supervision of anti-doping laboratories.
“Therefore, the IOC cannot be made responsible, neither for the timing nor for the reasons of these incidents we have to face now … just a couple of days before the Olympic Games.”
Bach said the IOC wants to “shed full light on all the allegations” in McLaren’s report, including evidence that Russian officials replaced tainted urine samples with clean ones during the 2104 Winter Games in Sochi.
McLaren’s investigation has been extended so he can identify athletes and others involved in state-backed doping and coverups. Once McLaren finishes his work, “then we will take all the further necessary sanctions,” Bach said.
The evidence published so far by McLaren was “shocking,” Bach said.
“If this system was applied like this, it’s an attack on everything we want to represent,” he said. “It’s an attack on the Olympic Games and it’s an attack on our values.”
But Bach reiterated his position that it would be wrong to collectively sanction all Russian athletes because it would punish some who had no links to doping.
“How far can you go to punish an individual for the failures or manipulations of your government?” he said. “Is it possible to take an athlete and say, ‘Because your government has done something wrong, you automatically are out?’ This would not be justifiable, neither on a moral ground, not to speak on a legal ground.”
Bach dismissed suggestions that pressure from the Russian government influenced the IOC decision.
“I haven’t been talking to any Russian government official since the publication of the McLaren report and not even in the days or weeks preceding it,” he said.
Bach defended the decision to reject a bid by 800-meter runner Yulia Stepanova, a former doper and whistleblower who helped expose the extent of cheating in Russia, to compete in Rio as a neutral athlete, as proposed by the IAAF.
“It was not easy,” he said. “The executive board made it really clear that it appreciates the contribution of Yulia Stepanova in the fight against doping. We offered assistance and support which no other organization has so far offered.”
Bach said the IOC had targeted 2,200 athletes in pre-Olympic tests ahead of Rio, and that 4,500 urine tests and 1,000 blood controls would be conducted during the games, similar to the figure in London four years ago.
Bach also gave an upbeat assessment of Rio’s readiness for the games. The preparations have been clouded across multiple fronts, including a severe recession leading to Olympic budget cuts, concerns over water pollution, crime and the Zika virus, and problems with accommodations in the athletes’ village.
“It’s coming together,” Bach said. “There will be, as always, some late challenges. We are more confident than ever that we will have great Olympic Games ‘a la Brazil’ with a great spirit.”