PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – IOC President Thomas Bach called it “a lively and spirited debate.”
That’s an understatement.
With the Winter Olympics set to open in only three days, Bach faced a barrage of criticism – and entrenched support – from roughly 100 International Olympic Committee members on Tuesday over the decision to exclude many Russian athletes from the Pyeongchang Games.
Two members – Richard Pound and Gerardo Werthein – got into a nasty exchange on the floor of the spacious meeting room, rare in the genteel traditions of the Olympic body.
Pound is the IOC’s longest-serving member, and he was among more than a dozen to air views in what he called “the matter of Russian doping activities.” Pound is also the former president of WADA, the world body charged with policing doping in sports.
“I believe that in the collective mind of a significant portion of the world, and among the athletes of the world, the IOC has not only failed to protect athletes, but has made it possible for cheating athletes to prevail against the clean athletes,” Pound said, describing the IOC’s world as a “comfortable cocoon.”
“We talk more than we walk,” Pound added. “The athletes and the public at large … no longer have confidence that their interests are being protected. Our commitment to both is in serious doubt. With respect, I don’t think we can talk our way out of this problem.”
Werthein jumped in, siding with Bach and going directly after Pound with the other 100 members listening.
“For some reason if Mr. Pound doesn’t agree, then it’s wrong,” Werthein said. “We have to understand that this is not Mr. Pound’s organization. But this is the IOC.”
Werthein went on, calling what some of what Pound says “very unfair.”
“He makes statements that create an environment of doubt,” Werthein added. “In one way it discredits the work that is being done in the IOC.”
Pound then asked for time to respond. And he shot back.
“I think it’s extremely inappropriate to turn this in to an ad hominem (a character attack),” Pound said. “The fact I have a different opinion from others … does not mean I am not entitled to the opinion. I think it’s very unfortunate in a collegial gathering like this to suggest that I am not entitled to give that opinion.”
As Pound and Werthein clashed, 32 Russian athletes on Tuesday filed yet more appeals with the Court of Arbitration for Sport seeking spots in the games. The 32 failed to pass IOC vetting and were not invited.
The CAS decision is expected on Wednesday.
“We’re not fearful in any way,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said. “We wait for the decision tomorrow. We’re very confident with the stance we’ve taken.”
The IOC expects 168 Russian athletes who have been deemed “clean” to participate in the games under the banner of “Olympic Athletes from Russia,” absent any national flags, uniforms or national logos.
The contentious issue of the Russian ban, and the way it was handled by the IOC, threatens to overshadow the games themselves with 3,000 athletes expected to compete.
“We have to change and learn from this difficult situation,” Bach said.
The IOC will hope to shift the focus to good news as North Korean and South Korean athletes compete alongside each other under a symbolic deal aimed at easing tension on the Korean peninsula.
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