Richard McLaren returned home recently from abroad. He’s at the tail-end of his mandated isolation, which has given him a lot of time to think.
McLaren is the London, Ont., law professor who was given the task of investigating Russia’s cheating ways at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
His eventual report became an inconvenient truth for the International Olympic Committee. Once the suspicion that Russia had put together a vast doping operation became a proved fact, the IOC and associated bodies were stuck trying to figure out what to do about it.
Their solutions managed the remarkable trick of upsetting everyone involved. They’re still muddling out of it to this day. Every now and then McLaren gets called as a witness to one dispute or another.
“I never dreamt this could last five years,” McLaren said. “But there you go.”
Sports is supposed to be simple. It’s a meritocracy. But once you loop human frailty and unforeseen events into the equation, it all goes chaos theory very quickly.
McLaren recently took on a new role as head of the integrity unit for FIBA (the international overseer of basketball), but his job description is still a bit loosey-goosey.
So, like a lot of us, McLaren’s been considering bigger-picture issues such as, what next? Also like a lot of us, he has some concerns – in his case, as they relate to the legal ramifications of postponing an Olympics.
McLaren is uniquely qualified to think about such things. He’s arbitrated nearly 200 cases at the Court of Arbitration for Sport over the past quarter century, but he is not a cog in the Olympic machine.
Since this summer’s Olympics were cancelled last week, we’ve heard many uplifting stories about athletes coming together more in hope than disappointment. From McLaren’s perspective, disappointment may soon take over.
A little more than half of the 11,000 athletes slated to participate in Tokyo had already qualified when the world stopped. On Thursday, the IOC stumbled backward into the question of who already has a ticket to the sequel, “Tokyo 2020: Even Tokyoier.”
“All of the [Olympic] qualifications that have been achieved by national Olympic committees and individual athletes remain in place,” IOC sports director Kit McConnell said. “Any athlete needs to be individually selected because they represent their NOC. In all sports, the NOC retains the right to select athletes.”
This turns all qualified competitors into Schrodinger’s Olympians. They are simultaneously qualified and not qualified, depending on what the boss says.
Sport changes in a year’s time. What looks like a qualified athlete right now may not look so qualified by next spring.
“We’re going to see a huge wave of cases going to CAS saying Athlete X would not have been able to compete because they were under a doping ban,” McLaren said. “There are going to be cases where people say they would have gone in 2020, but a younger person gets to go in 2021.”
There are no rules set up for this eventuality. Every country and national sporting body does things a little differently, but no one planned for a year-long delay announced in the middle of a qualification cycle.
The coming frustration probably won’t peak until aggrieved parties know for certain they won’t make an Olympic roster. It’s possible all this may have to be decided on an ad-hoc basis and individually. It could reach a head weeks, rather than months, before the Tokyo Games begin in July of next year.
Multiply every unhappy sporting camper times hundreds of national federations overseeing dozens of sports and you can picture the snowball getting bigger.
McLaren pointed out that federations give their athletes a four-year plan. Long before a Games, people know what happens when, and what’s needed to meet Olympic benchmarks.
That’s all out the window now. Is that kosher? No one knows.
“You’ll have cases where people say I had all the eligibility to go to 2020, but now you’ve changed the rules. In 2021, you’re going to have a lot of that going on.”
What happens when there are no rules? People make up their own.
“I’m not saying this is going on in Canada, but it certainly does allow favouritism and corruption to creep into the selection process.” Favouritism? Corruption? At the Olympics?? Pull the other one.
This is a small matter just at the moment. Even if it were front of mind, it is still just sports.
But it reminds us that as a global community, it’s been a long time since we have had to hit CTRL+ALT+DELETE on normal life and reboot the system some months later. We’ve never done it so comprehensively. While world wars were at their peak, there were still parts of that world unaffected by them.
COVID-19 is reaching into every corner of a newly integrated planet Earth. It is not too early for some people – those not in the middle of the fight – to begin thinking about what happens next.
A lot of that consideration will boil down to the core issues McLaren is thinking about – who wins and who loses? What is fair? How do we arbitrate that fairness? And because we may need new rules, what do those look like and who makes them?
These questions will apply to every facet of our lives, all of them more important than the composition of the Bulgarian pole-vaulting team.
But the Olympics is a useful imaginative device on which to project the coming problems. Something simple – who is fastest? – may soon become extremely complicated in the absence of a framework to consider it.
Try the same exercise with bailout packages, health-care reform and international relations.
“On a general level, the other side of this isn’t picking up where we left off,” McLaren said. “It will be a changed world.”