Signs of progress at WADA meetings in Montreal

WADA's foundation board approved a plan Thursday that could give the agency new jurisdiction to suspend a country's Olympic federation for anti-doping violations. Catherine Legault/AFP/Getty Images

MONTREAL -- Russia's anti-doping agency is ready to take its first toddling steps back to credibility later this month. So said the World Anti-Doping Agency's Foundation Board, which lengthened RUSADA's leash slightly Thursday without unclipping it.

RUSADA, whose role in a corrupt system was exposed by whistleblowers, investigative reporters and WADA-commissioned probes, in that order, will be permitted to begin limited testing of Russian athletes in June if its leadership fulfills a commitment to de-politicize itself.

Full reinstatement could come in November if the agency can demonstrate it has emerged from a two-year stretch of scandal, defiant rhetoric and erratic progress. Even then, the testing gap that has yawned between Russia and other major sporting countries since its program went into limbo will take time to bridge.

A supervisory board is slated to vote May 31 to formalize what are promises for the moment: rules requiring RUSADA's leaders to be independent from often indistinguishable state and sporting influences, and mandating that all members comply with conflict-of-interest provisions.

In practical terms, this means retired pole vaulter, current board chairperson and ardent WADA critic Yelena Isinbayeva will be booted out of office. Thursday, former WADA president Dick Pound called her appointment in December "a clear provocation." In a theatrical exchange in which neither man actually named Isinbayeva, Pound asked the agency's deputy director general, Rob Koehler, to confirm she would be ousted. "To be very clear, the person will be gone as of May 31," Koehler said.

Can truly impartial anti-doping executives be found in a country where the sporting culture has skewed toward subterfuge and coercion for decades? That is an open question, but other pieces of the rebuilding project have advanced under supervision from anti-doping officials from the United Kingdom and Finland and individual experts from Australia and Lithuania installed in Russia for the past year.

That being said, the world deserves to be wary of a narrative in which loose ends are too neatly tied up.

Russia has made its stored athlete biological passport samples available and is working to ensure that drug testers will have access to "closed" military cities where athletes have played hide-and-seek, Koehler told the board Thursday.

Twenty of the sample collectors known as doping control officers have been properly trained -- a number still far from adequate to fan out over a vast country to reach Russia's athlete population, and one that will ideally at least double in the near future, Koehler said. Now the testers themselves need to be tested by working in real-world conditions.

If the RUSADA vote goes as pledged, WADA's Compliance Review Committee, led by an outside expert, British sports lawyer Jonathan Taylor, will green-light the agency's first forays in the field since it was suspended in late 2015.

Koehler also reported that the overt obstruction and dysfunction that prevailed over the past 18 months have dissipated. Outside testers working within Russia were able to complete 2,300 sample collections. (Russian athletes underwent 333 tests by international entities outside the country.) Another 431 samples went uncollected for various reasons, such as athlete whereabouts failures. But a whopping 2,344 more tests originally planned were canceled due to the lack of available doping control officers. To date this year, 82 percent of a planned 1,261 sample collections have been completed.

Those totals all pale by comparison to the 12,000-plus tests logged by RUSADA in 2014 and 2015 for WADA's annual tally -- but numbers out of Russia during that period are so untrustworthy as to be worthless. Still, athletes from other countries have reason to wonder when their Russian counterparts will be subject to anything approaching the same scrutiny, especially with the next Winter Olympic Games approaching in nine months.

Koehler said the smaller number of tests are "worth their weight in gold" because they were intelligence-based and narrowly targeted toward "the right athletes at the right times."

WADA director general Olivier Niggli echoed that reasoning but conceded it was too early to say how much testing can be bulked up by the crucial pre-Games period when winter sports athletes will be competing for Olympic spots. Some of the responsibility for that will fall back on the international sports federations that are still managing their own testing programs.

In an additional complication, the Moscow laboratory remains suspended, so samples are still being transported out of the country for analysis. Niggli said the lab would not be reaccredited until RUSADA is deemed fully compliant with the WADA code.

Russian compliance took up just part of a dense, lengthy WADA board agenda Thursday as the agency continues to push forward on several fronts of self-examination simultaneously.

The board approved an initial if incomplete blueprint for a global Independent Testing Agency that will contract with international federations on a voluntary basis to try to minimize the number of conflicts of interest between sport and anti-doping.

Many operational details of the ITA, which will begin life as a Swiss foundation and could be established as soon as February on an accelerated timetable, are still fuzzy, and it could still become subject to power struggles between WADA and the International Olympic Committee, which originally pushed the idea.

But it appears that as currently described, the ITA would not encroach on the current jurisdiction of national anti-doping agencies or independent entities like those set up by the IAAF and UCI, world governing bodies for track and field and cycling, respectively.

Gunter Younger, WADA's director of intelligence and investigations, said the agency has received 60 tips on cases from new secure platforms launched on its website and app this spring. WADA also announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding with the nonprofit whistleblower support group FairSport, led by global humanitarian and Olympic speedskating icon Johann Koss. FairSport will provide legal and financial assistance to some whistleblowers in need who are referred by WADA.