— Published 21 March 2023

For Russian athletes, one obstacle after another

Routine but inevitable. For the umpteenth time since the end of 2015 and the beginning of a soap opera whose episodes can no longer be counted, the World Athletics Council will debate this week the Russian issue.

Between this Tuesday and Thursday, March 23, the members of the decision-making body of the body based in Monaco will have to take a position. But, except for a very unlikely turn of events, it will not change the short-term fate of Russian athletes. They will remain at the door.

Unlike other international federations in the Olympic movement, World Athletics is not only faced with the “dilemma“, to use an IOC expression, of excluding Russian athletes in reaction to the military offensive decided by their government. The athletics body must also decide what to do with the Russian federation (RusAF).

On the first of the two issues, it would be surprising to see World Athletics turn around and allow Russian athletes in international competitions. Its president, Sebastian Coe, has often said in recent months that their exclusion would not be lifted as long as the conflict in Ukraine continues.

The European Athletics Association set an example by explaining after a meeting last week of its executive committee that “athletes from Russia and Belarus should remain banned from its events and activities until the war in Ukraine comes to an end.”

Logically, World Athletics will announce a very similar position on Thursday. It would not totally close the door of the Paris 2024 Games to Russian athletes, but their chances of getting a ticket to the Olympic event would already be reduced. The period of qualification has indeed already begun in some disciplines, among which the marathon, the walk and the combined events.

Another subject, but the same theme, on the menu of the World Athletics Council discussions: the reinstatement of the Russian athletics federation. Decided in November 2015 in reaction to the discovery of state doping, its suspension has been repeatedly extended, the body considering that the progress and reforms requested remained insufficient.

RusAF now seems very close to regaining its place in world athletics. But, paradoxically, the lifting of its suspension would have no immediate effect on the athletes. They would remain blocked at the stadium gate, this time for political reasons.

Rune Andersen, the head of the World Athletics task force overseeing the RusAF situation, is due to present a new report to the Council. His presentation will be accompanied by a recommendation. It could be the last one and finally put an end to a suspension of more than seven years.

The Norwegian anti-doping expert explained it at the end of last year, after the last World Athletics Council meeting: “the Taskforce expects to be in a position by March 2023. RusAF has demonstrated in recent months a new culture of good governance and zero tolerance for doping throughout the organisation.

Without prejudging the content of the discussions at the Council’s virtual mode meeting this week, it seems realistic that the world athletics body will decide to reinstate Russian athletics, but continue to exclude its athletes.

Another topic on the agenda of a Council meeting where members should not find the time too long, the issue of intersex and transgender athletes. Not the easiest issue of the moment.

The athletics body explained in a statement last week that it had consulted with its national federations over the past few months, proposing a “preferred option“. It was developed “In reviewing a number of new and existing studies and observations from the field.

The option in question proves more restrictive for intersex or transgender athletes wishing to compete in the female category. They might have to show a continuous reduction in testosterone levels below 2.5 nmol/L for at least 24 months.

But World Athletics makes it clear: “Putting forward a preferred option was the best way to gather constructive feedback but this does not mean this is the option that will be presented to Council or indeed adopted.