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By going after individuals instead of institutions, the IOC bungled the Russian doping case

Shortly before he was to testify at the Court of Arbitration for Sport this past month, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov was reminded what flipping on the Kremlin might cost him.

"Rodchenkov should be shot for lying, like Stalin would have done," Leonid Tyagachev, the former head of the Russian Olympic Committee, said in a radio interview.

Everyone knew the Russian leadership wanted Rodchenkov – the whistleblower who ran their compromised doping regime – gone. Two of his former colleagues had already died suspiciously. But hearing it put so bluntly from a top official was chilling.

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Rodchenkov currently lives under witness protection somewhere in the United States. A day before he was to begin his case for permanent American residency, Russian prosecutors filed drug-trafficking charges against him. A request for extradition was made. That uncertain process is ongoing.

So at best, Rodchenkov will spend the rest of his life holding his breath every time he starts his car. At worst, he'll be returned home for what the NKVD used to euphemistically call "repression."

Now the poor doctor must be wondering why he bothered.

On Thursday, the CAS upheld the appeals of 28 Russian athletes suspended for doping at the Sochi Games. Eleven other athletes had lifetime bans reduced to forfeiting one Olympics. Three more had their hearings put off until later. Not a single penalty was left fully enforced.

The court did not provide reasons for its decisions, but said in a statement "the evidence collected was found to be insufficient to establish that an anti-doping rule violation was committed."

That evidence was copious – a trove of first-hand testimony, most notably Rodchenkov's; months of forensic investigation; and swaths of communications data all pointing in one direction. There was enough of it to swing a murder case. But it was not sufficient to deny someone the freedom to luge.

What the CAS appears to be saying is that if an athlete provided a clean sample – regardless of how corrupted the testing system is proved to be – he or she enjoys the assumption of being clean.

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Whether that technicality sounds fair to you will depend on where you stand on the tension between institutions and individual rights. Somehow, this has become a litmus test for liberalism.

Most of the frustration will fall on the CAS for wilful blindness. That would be wrong.

The CAS did what courts are meant to do – apply the laws as they are written. There are no anti-doping rules that apply to a state-level swindle. No one was prepared for the possibility that a spy service such as Russia's FSB would turn urine swapping into a black art. So much of this was being made up on the fly.

If someone is to blame for the way it ends, it is the IOC itself. It erred in many ways, but none moreso than deciding to go after individuals instead of the institutions that were ultimately responsible.

Given the opportunity to ban Russia outright – bypassing the CAS altogether – the IOC went for a neither/nor solution. Neither a flag nor an anthem.

The clumsy attempt at humiliation will still see 169 (and now possibly more) Russians-who-may-not-call-themselves-Russians competing in Pyeongchang.

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That punishment was based on the laudable idea that only cheaters should be denied the right to compete. Like a lot of half-baked solutions to complicated problems, it's having some unintended results.

Yesterday, those 28 Russians athletes were proven cheaters. Today, they are not.

But the IOC still says they are because … well, just because.

"Not being sanctioned does not automatically confer the privilege of an invitation [to the Olympics]," the IOC said in a statement. "In this context, it is also important to note that, in his press conference, the CAS Secretary General insisted that the CAS decision '... does not mean that these 28 athletes are declared innocent'."

Are you familiar with sophistry? Because this is what it looks like.

There is a process by which athletes are found to have cheated. The CAS is the ultimate arbiter of it. Having been told by the CAS that it does not agree these athletes have broken the rules as they are written, the IOC's answer is, 'I don't like the rules any more.' This convenient application of the law may not affront your sense of right and wrong. The Russians almost certainly cheated. In a perfect world, there would be a consequence for that.

But there is now a larger principle at stake. People break rules all the time, and it is taken as a given. We've accepted that a certain amount of individual malfeasance is unavoidable in a civil society.

However, when institutions start moving the goal posts as suits them, it excites general upset. Because if you don't know what the rules are, there are no rules. You know where that sort of thing happens all the time? Russia.

Having blown its chance in court, the IOC does not get to call a do-over. That's how a flawed process becomes frontier justice.

The IOC has nine days to avoid the embarrassment of barring athletes who have not been judged guilty in the court of sport. Given its track record, my money's on embarrassment.

Regardless of what's decided, no one comes out of this with their reputations intact. The IOC is left looking like fools, the CAS like naïfs and the Russians like comic villains (frustratingly, a role they delight in).

Like Thursday's appeal board, the rest of us will continue telling ourselves that sport is clean, despite all evidence to the contrary. This is the real fantasy of the Olympics.

Since we've ended up back where we started, it's tempting to believe none of this mattered. Once they light the cauldron in Pyeongchang, we can join hands around the world and forget this happened. So who really cares?

I imagine Grigory Rodchenkov does. Armed with nothing but a principle, he tried to do a good deed. That's why he is the only one truly being punished.

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