Ian O’Riordan: Sport is war minus the shooting for Russia

Derval O’Rourke won a rare non-Russian medal in discredited 2006 World Indoors

I ran into Derval O'Rourke last Sunday at the Irish Indoor Championships, surprised to hear it was her first time inside the Sport Ireland Arena, considering in some ways she helped build it. At least in shaming the Government into eventually advancing on the place.

“Strangely enough was just thinking of you, and Moscow, how otherwise grim that trip was,” I said to her, and she said something similar back to me.

It must be 16 years this weekend – it is 16 years this weekend – since O'Rourke went where no Irish woman had gone before, winning a global sprint title at the 11th World Indoor Championships, staged in the vast grey grandeur that was the Olimpiyskiy Sport Arena. It was demolished in 2020.

The Olimpiyskiy was specifically built for the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, the first to be staged in socialist Eastern Europe, and divided into two halls seating 35,000 between, the then largest roofed stadium in Europe. It hosted the boxing and the basketball, where coincidentally or not the old Soviet Union won more medals than anyone else.


In 2006, the Irish team for the world indoors consisted of nine athletes, and the army of travelling Irish media consisted of two; Greg Allen and I. We were housed in the Hotel Ukraina situated on a bend of the Moskva River in central Moscow, to this day the most imposing building we've ever stepped or indeed slept in. Commissioned by Stalin in 1947, one of the Seven Sisters of his new high-rise Moscow, at 206 metres the then tallest hotel in the world, still the tallest in Europe, and symbolically named in 1954 to mark the 300th anniversary of the reunification of Russia and Ukraine.

I bought my mother a Fabergé egg in the lobby of the Ukraina, complete with a note saying from Russia with love, and the city certainly had some charms: the Ukrainia was walking distance from Red Square and the Kremlin and no one can deny that’s an imposing place. Still there was darkly grim feel throughout, particularly once events started unfolding inside the Olimpiyskiy, early evidence of the greatest theft in modern athletics.

Fortunately for O’Rourke, no Russian woman was either good enough or doped enough to make the final of the 60m hurdles, which she won in magnificent style, her time of 7.84 seconds still the Irish record by some distance. Basis aside it was one of the performances of the championships: O’Rourke we know has been denied medals, before and since, only Moscow was her chance for gold and she nailed it.

Russia still won more medals than anyone else, these being the first championships staged in the former Soviet Union since the Moscow Olympics. The year before, coincidentally or not, in his second term as president, Vladimir Putin told the Kremlin the collapse of the Soviet Union was the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century".

Of the 26 events, contested by 129 nations, Russia won 19 medals in all, between 13 women and six men, including eight in gold: in the 16 years since, effectively all those medals have been discredited, although not all stripped. Long jumper Tatyana Kotova, famous for her dyed hair and golden necklace, was busted after retrospective testing from the 2005 World Championships, and two years later 1,500m champion Yuliya Fomenko was banned before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing for "fraudulent substitution of urine", also known as the tube-up-the-bum technique revealed by former Festina team soigneur Willy Voet in his cycling expose Breaking the Chain.

Even their darling of the lot Yelena Isinbayeva would soon lose credibility, the double Olympic pole vault champion openly critical of the evidence that revealed Russia's state-sponsored doping regime in 2015, and got herself banned from the Rio Olympics as a result.

That evidence came too late for Gillian O'Sullivan, the Irish race-walker denied gold at the 2003 World Championships in Paris, where the 37 year-old Russian Yelena Nikolayeva finished first; we know Russian walking was the dirtiest of any event, Olive Loughnane duly promoted to gold in 2016, seven years after she'd won silver at the Berlin World Championships, Rob Heffernan also getting his hands on Olympic bronze four years after he should have won it in London.

Now it may be wishful to think that should a secret recording ever emerge from any of the council meetings of international sporting bodies since the military invasion of Ukraine, nine days ago, someone in the room might have had the gall to ask: “Remind me again, why Russia isn’t banned already?”

Because on several occasions since those World Indoors in Moscow, especially since the evidence of state-sponsored doping, the absolute advice was that Russia should be banned en masse. With some gently irony perhaps, only World Athletics took note, suspending the Russian Athletics Federation in November 2015, and has politely refused to lift it in the seven years since, lack of trust still being the stumbling block.

That at least makes a change from the paltry stand made by other sporting bodies against Russia for the best part of the last decade, and not just in the war on drugs: between the power and greed and corruption and bribery it’s long been clear that Russia has been getting away with murder.

"It's worse than we thought," Dick Pound said in 2015, the former head of the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada), a man who usually fears for the worst when it comes to doping, adding that Russia had essentially "sabotaged" the 2012 London Olympics, such was their "widespread inaction" against athletes with suspiciously obvious doping profiles.

All the gory details were ultimately presented in the McLaren Report, further revealing Russia's insidious sample tampering at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, and evidence of widespread state-sponsored drug applications, implicating some 1,000 Russian athletes who competed across 30 sports, including football, from 2011 to 2015.

Still, three times already the International Olympic Committee (IOC) stopped short of an outright ban on Russia, starting with Rio 2016, where even without their usual track and field team, Russia went on to win 56 medals, fourth best overall.

Worse still, after Wada imposed another four-year suspension on Russia, in December 2019, an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), naturally backed by Putin, resulted in that four-year suspension reduced to two.

Putin more than any leader of modern times may well believe George Orwell’s old line that all serious sport is war minus the shooting, penned in response to the 1945 British tour conducted by Dynamo Moscow, and still even he might have the gall to ask one of his Russian sporting advisers since their military invasion of Ukraine.

“Remind me again, why aren’t we banned already?”