During a highly-charged meeting of the International Olympic Committee’s membership, Zhukov blamed the World Anti-Doping Agency for failing to address Russia’s problems sooner and attacked world athletics’ governing body for not giving Russian athletes a chance to prove themselves clean.
In a remarkable speech, the Russian Olympic Committee president also claimed WADA’s investigations into endemic cheating in the world’s largest country were part of a politically-motivated attack by Russia’s rivals, a move he said was an assault on Olympic values.
“If some Russian athletes who are in Rio are forced to leave, that would be a real tragedy,” Zhukov told the IOC’s 129th session.
The build-up to the Rio Games has been dominated by bad news about the city’s readiness for the so-called ‘greatest show on earth’ but the debate about the IOC response to the Russian doping crisis has arguably been even more damaging for the future of the Olympics.
Russia had hoped to bring almost 400 competitors to Rio but more than 100 of those were blocked when a number of the 28 international federations that govern sports in the summer programme declared them ineligible.
This followed two damning reports, commissioned by WADA, into widespread doping in Russia: the first by Richard Pound in November 2015 and the second by Richard McLaren last month.
McLaren’s investigation revealed stunning levels of cheating, across almost every Olympic and Paralympic sport in Russia, and immediately prompted calls from anti-doping agencies, athletes’ groups and even governments to throw the sporting superpower out of the Games.
It was a call IOC president Thomas Bach and his executive board resisted, choosing instead to give the international federations the responsibility of vetting each Russian athlete, with a three-man panel set up by the IOC and Court of Arbitration for Sport getting final approval.
After a bruising encounter with the media on Sunday, Bach used his opening address to again defend his handling of the affair and ask the IOC’s eclectic mix of career administrators, ex-athletes and minor royals to support the decision to not suspend the Russian Olympic Committee.
Bach referred to that being a “nuclear option” that would have infringed principles of natural justice, before listing half a dozen reasons why the real responsibility for the confusion surrounding Russia’s participation in Rio should lie with WADA and the wider anti-doping community.
Over the next two hours, this view was enthusiastically endorsed by representatives from around the world as the split between those in charge of Olympic sport and those responsible for making sure it is clean was revealed to be a gaping chasm.
Speech after speech from the floor blamed WADA for failing to act on intelligence of Russian cheating sooner and for releasing McLaren’s explosive report into state-directed doping so soon before the Games.
Italian IOC member Mario Pescante said WADA’s “failure has left the sports movement in a very difficult position and an impossible time frame”.
Pescante added: “At times, WADA has seemed to be more interested in publicity and self-promotion than doing its job to ensure clean sport.”
Israel’s Alex Gilady went even further, saying: “It is not the reputation of the IOC that needs to be restored, it’s WADA’s.”
That set the stage for Zhukov, whose speech ranged from references to the Olympic boycotts of the 1970s and 1980s, the flawed decision to add the heart-boosting drug meldonium to the banned list “without proper research” and the International Association of Athletics Federations punishing Russian athletes for not leaving Russia to train.
It was left to Pound, a long-standing IOC member and WADA’s founding president, to give an opposing view, calling for an extraordinary session to debate a proper response to the crisis and reminding the audience of the magnitude of Russia’s cheating.
With time running short for contributions, American IOC member Larry Probst made a short point in response to Zhukov’s claim that this was about geopolitics and demonising Russia.
“This is about doping,” Probst said firmly, while Britain’s Adam Pengilly reminded the floor that athletes almost universally wanted Russia banned.
Pengilly, understood to be the only IOC member who voted against the call to support the executive board’s decision not to ban, also asked Bach to reconsider the decision to block Russian whistle-blower Yuliya Stepanova from competing in Rio.
Her request to race had been backed by the IAAF but the IOC’s ethics commission rejected that, a decision Pengilly, and many others, said was unfair and sent a terrible message to would-be whistleblowers.