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Why a fierce critic of Russian Olympic sports came to its defence

A few years ago, the “McLaren’s Report” sounded like a verdict for functionaries and fans alike. As a result of Richard McLaren’s report, the Russian team has performed without a flag and anthem, and not in its full team at three Olympics in a row. Last week, however, the Canadian lawyer made a series of important statements urging the International Olympic Committee to lift the ban on Russian athletes and stop punishing them for their government’s actions in Ukraine. 

“The Russians are being treated unfairly. The athletes did not start this conflict and are not responsible for its course. These are two good reasons to allow them to compete in international competitions again. If the CAS decides in favour of the athletes, the federations will be forced to allow them to compete,” McLaren told Sportschau.

The speech caused an unprecedented reaction. Famous people from the world of sports, as well as politicians and functionaries, had mixed feelings about McLaren’s statement, although it was largely welcomed. In early March, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recommended that international sports federations do not allow Russian athletes to compete under its aegis because of the situation in Ukraine.

Since then, almost no Russian athletes have competed outside the country: neither figure skaters, gymnasts, track and field athletes, nor even football and hockey players. The exceptions are tennis players, fighters, and chess player Ian Nepomniachtchi, who has publicly spoken up for peace.

In the Russian media, there is now an opinion that McLaren’s words might lead to the return of Russian sport to the international arena, albeit possibly without the flag and anthem at first. The assumption that McLaren’s words could stimulate Russia’s comeback was supported by Tatiana Tarasova, an honoured figure skating coach of the USSR.

“It’s nice that such a person has supported our athletes. Perhaps his opinion will somehow influence our return to the world stage. I think the West began to understand that competitions without Russian athletes are uninteresting and incomplete,” TASS quoted Tarasova as saying.

Boris Paikin, a member of the Duma’s Committee on Physical Culture and Sports, expressed a similar point of view on Match TV channel. He thinks that McLaren reminded the international community that sport should be kept out of politics and that the removal of Russian athletes is a violation of their professional rights. According to the deputy, the change in McLaren’s rhetoric is the initial step in preparing the public for Russia’s return to the world stage.

However, not everyone in Russia took McLaren’s words seriously. For example, Soviet figure skater and three-time Olympic champion Irina Rodnina suggested that McLaren himself is “doped up,” and his words would not change anything and the decision on Russian athletes would remain unchanged. 

Such a range of opinions can be explained by a specific attitude toward the figure of McLaren.

Richard McLaren is an experienced sports lawyer and a member of the International Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) since the late 90s. His career as a sports lawyer has developed rapidly, especially since 2000, when he was asked to investigate the use of steroids by American athletes during the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

In Russia, his “fame” came when he was the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) independent commission investigating the 2014 Olympics doping case. In 2016, McLaren published a report on the Russian doping system at Sochi Olympics. 

At the time, the entire sports world was startled. More than 1,000 Russian athletes were on McLaren’s list who, according to the lawyer, may have been involved in the state-sponsored doping system. Many of those athletes were disqualified and stripped of their awards, including Olympic medals.

Some, however, were later cleared of the charges – their cases closed and medals returned.

But because of this whole process, McLaren became one of the most controversial figures in Russia,  even though he never called for a mass suspension of Russian athletes or other serious collective sanctions. Those decisions were made by other organisations after his report was made public.

Remarkably, only two lawsuits have been filed against McLaren over data from his report, that is, from Russian cyclists and rowers who were not allowed to participate in Rio 2016. The cyclists’ suit was heard in a court in Ontario, and McLaren won the case. The rowers’ case has not yet been heard. 

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