4 October 2017

Mikhail Butov: the road to recovery for Russian athletics

Mikhail Butov, former General Secretary of the Russian Athletics Federation, argues that athletics needs to focus on the next generation of Russian athletes, or risk further damage to the sport.

Mikhail Butov has been involved with the Russian Athletics Federation (RusAF) since 2004. He was General Secretary from 2008 until January this year. Today, he is the driving force behind Modern Athletics in Russia, a new organisation developing athletics events as a fun, social, healthy activity.

He remains a member of the RusAF Council, which meets a few times each year, but is far removed from its day-to-day activities. He is also a member of the IAAF Council.

During his time at RusAF, Butov’s focus was on marketing, competitions, event organisation and relationships between the international organisations and the national federations. He argues that RusAF needs to focus on the next generation of Russian track and field athletes, preparing the ground for their return to the international arena.

He also explains that within Russia, focus has shifted towards athletics being a fun, social activity. In other words, Butov is working towards rejuvenating the Russian public’s interest in athletics whilst RusAF remains suspended.

Russia’s ban

November 2017 will mark two years since the International Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF) November 2015 decision to exclude the Russian Athletics Federation (RusAF) from international competition. The exclusion was based on Dick Pound’s first Independent Commission (IC) Report for the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). It found that the IAAF and RusAF had conspired to hide Russian doping. Since then, the Independent Person (IP) Reports compiled by Richard McLaren have outlined an extraordinary sample swapping technique used not only at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, but across sport.

As this article illustrates, athletes from a wide variety of sports were found to have been affected by the systemic doping system operating in Russia. Yet only track and field athletes – and weightlifters – suffer from a blanket ban. This excluded athletes who had never doped, as well as young athletes at the start of their career.

At the Rio 2016 Olympics, only Russian track and field athletes and weightlifters were excluded from competing – with the exception of Darya Klishina. Russians could compete in other sports as neutrals, if they could show that they had not been tainted by the hand of systemic doping.

Pound’s report was commissioned in response to the ‘Geheimsache Doping: Wie Russland seine Sieger macht (Top Secret Doping: How Russia makes its Winners)’ documentary produced by Hajo Seppelt for ARD in December 2014. As such, it was largely concerned with events prior to 2015 and prior to the introduction of the 2015 World Anti-Doping Code.

Two years was the standard sanction under the 2009 World Anti-Doping Code, which was in force during the time that systemic Russian doping was alleged to have taken place. It can therefore be argued that Russian athletes who doped have served their ban and, in any case, they have been replaced by a new generation of athletes untouched by the corruption outlined by WADA.

New generation

Butov argues that this new generation of Russian athletes was starting to develop before Russia’s international exclusion. “In 2015, when we had two world champions, Maria Kuchina and Sergey Shubenkov, I said that not only was a new generation in athletics developing, but also new athletes in our sports”, he says. “Unfortunately, after what happened, there were a lot of backward steps in this process because of our isolation in world athletics. But two years ago, the process of renovation of athletics had already started.”

“We need new blood, a new vision and understanding of athletics, as well as a new generation of coaches”, explains Butov. “Finally, hopefully, we can begin a new approach to the organisation of athletics”.

“Of course, we have a lot of past experience regarding coaching in athletics”, he continues. “We generated a lot of knowledge during Soviet Union times. We had good scientists. I have met with a lot of foreign coaches who today still use books written by scientists during this time.”

“Within Russia, the motivation for coaches is a high level of results, and of course some coaches used the wrong methods to achieve this”, he explains. “This is illustrated by the number of doping cases involving Russian athletes”.

“Now, I hope and feel that the new generation of athletes and coaches understand better about correct motivation”, continues Butov. “Fun running has become very popular in Russia, and this has helped this process. Mentally, we need a lot of time to change, but the development of fun running has helped with this process.”

Effect of RusAF’s ban on Russian athletics

The media has focussed on how Russian athletes who have been found guilty of anti-doping rule violations (ADRVs) have deprived other athletes of their rightful glory. What hasn’t been considered is the impact that RusAF’s ban has had on clean athletes in Russia. Butov says that it has had both positive and negative impacts.

“In Russia, we now understand more about our sports and athletics”, he explains. “It helped us to see this process from another perspective. Secondly, it allowed us to check all of our training methods. We checked very thoroughly and fundamentally all of our processes. Thirdly, we focussed on the new generation of athletics – although I am not personally satisfied that we have done enough in this area.”

Butov argues that the IAAF didn’t have to suspend RusAF, and by doing so it punished a lot of innocent athletes. “Two years ago, I proposed a strong monitoring system, as well as special entries for Russian athletes into international competition, such as was used by the International Olympic Committee”, he states. “Unfortunately, it was not done. The IAAF preferred suspension. This didn’t help a lot of athletes. A lot of high-level athletes were absolutely clean. They were isolated from international competitions, as well as having the motivation of competing at the Olympic Games and one-day events removed completely.”

Russian athletics has perhaps been hardest hit in terms of sponsorship, television and media coverage. “Of course, this situation didn’t help with the popularity of Russian athletics”, says Butov. “It was disappointing in terms of relations with international organisations – firstly the IAAF. It was a very tough decision against Russian athletics. Partly we agreed, but not with the level of sanctions.”

“A minimum of athletics events made it onto Russian television”, explains Butov. “Our newspapers didn’t cover international events, as Russian athletes were not taking part in them. The audience at events decreased, and TV didn’t use athletics events. This is a problem.”

“I have organised many different competitions and even this year, inviting people to athletics events is much more difficult”, continues Butov. “Fun run events are now much more popular than professional events. For me, as an organiser, it is much easier to find sponsors for these events than for professional events.”

“From the public point of view, I feel that many people are already tired of this situation – i.e. doping in athletics”, explains Butov. “A lot of people are not as positive as they were before concerning our sports. Athletics was very popular in Russia, until last year. Athletics was in the top five in terms of popular sports in Russia. Now, although I am not sure of the figures, I feel that this situation has got worse.”

Ban on Russian judges

A little-known consequence of the ban imposed on RusAF is that Russian athletics judges were also banned from officiating at international events. One of the recommendations of the IAAF Task Force was that ‘while RusAF remains suspended, no other representatives of RusAF (i.e. officials, athlete support personnel, etc) should take part in International Competition or in the affairs of the IAAF’. The IAAF has confirmed that this extends to judges.

This exclusion does seem patently unfair. It is understandable that due to concerns about systemic doping within a country, an international federation may decide to exclude athletes from that country in order to secure a level playing field for other athletes. It may also be understandable that due to concerns about who is pulling the strings in such a system, the international federation may also decide to exclude that member federation’s officials.

However, the IAAF hasn’t done this. Butov is still a member of the IAAF Council; Elena Orlova is still a member of the IAAF Technical Committee; and Yelena Isinbaeva is still a member of the IAAF Athletes Commission. Yet despite no evidence that they have done anything wrong, Russians have been banned from judging at IAAF competitions.

“I still cannot understand why our athletics judges should be isolated from international competitions”, says Butov. “We did a great job before the 2013 Moscow IAAF World Championships, and we organised a school for judges. It was a special programme for four years. We have received a very good team of judges around the country. We organised special programmes for them during these four years. About 300 or 400 people were coached up to international level. Plus, this year, we received four ITOs – International Technical Official – qualifications, including three European level qualifications. This was the first time in our history that this had happened.”

“This was a very good result, however after the past two years, we should be allowed back to international competitions”, argues Butov. “This is because judging local competitions is not the same as judging international competitions. For the majority of judges, we now have to almost start again, unfortunately.”

The recovery of athletics

Butov is reluctant to say that RusAF feels victimised by its international exclusion, describing the current situation as an “open door” for his sport. However, he also argues that Russian athletics has paid a heavy price – after all, Richard McLaren found that systemic doping affected all sports, not just athletics.

“Russia paid a big cost for this”, he says. “We are continuing to pay. I hope that it is enough. I hope that my colleagues in the IAAF Council will understand this. It will not be so easy for our sport to recover after this. It will not be easy to receive the trust from the Russian public, or from international colleagues. We need to come back as soon as possible to start this process.”

“I am sure that a lot of people would like to see us compete internationally again”, he continues. “I hope that my words concerning cooperation – but not isolation – will be understood by people, as this represents the best way forward.”

Butov argues that what RusAF and Russia has gone through could be of benefit to other sports and other countries affected by doping. “I am sure that the IAAF can use our experience to the benefit of other countries”, he argues. “Doping is not only a Russian problem. We hope that people will use our experience positively.”

“A lot of changes have already been made in my country”, he explains. “There have also been a lot of legal and regulatory changes, as well as structural changes. There have also been changes regarding Russian anti-doping policy, as well as the creation of a special independent anti-doping commission, led by Mr. Smirnov.” Butov is a member of the Protocol Committee of that same Commission.

Butov explains that he has a hard time understanding how anybody can argue that Russia is not making an effort to comply with anti-doping regulations. “I cannot understand how anybody could tell you anything else”, he says. “Practically, it is a huge, difficult job. I received a lot of feedback from my colleagues after the IAAF Congress – colleagues from other countries. Practically all of them sent some support and they feel that need Russian athletics as a serious competitor. A lot of people appreciate our experience in the organisation of events.”

“Now, the situation is that we have an open door. Some of our athletes have started to compete. This is good, and we could see last summer that for many young athletes, they were very successful in competitions. This means that for them, the last two years were a very difficult time, but they came back absolutely at the highest level. I hope that for these young athletes, this period was a fruitful time for training.”

Modern Athletics in Russia & the ‘Russian Roulette’ format

As Butov has explained, maintaining interest in athletics within Russia will be a difficult task, even after RusAF’s reinstatement. His new venture is designed to stimulate that interest through new competition formats, building on the growing public interest in amateur athletics events.

Butov’s new project, Modern Athletics in Russia, was the organising force behind the Gerakliada Sports Festival, which was held in Moscow from 21-13 July this summer. The event involved a mix of professional and amateur events from various age groups competing in five sports, including athletics.

The competition also introduced the ‘Russian Roulette’ format, a system of racing involving elimination where the final length of the race is determined as a race is in progress on the track. The final length of the race could be 1,600m, 2,000m or 2,400m and is determined at 1,200m using a simple draw system. The final length is indicated to the runners through the lap count. Every 400m, the athlete who finishes last is eliminated, until the 1,200m mark.

The Gerakliada Sports Festival also involved a new 4×4 format which involved men and women competing at the same time in events such as Speedy Pentathlon, combined shot put and track events. Speedy Pentathlon involves 60m hurdles, shot put, long jump, high jump and a 600m race over two hours. Butov says that the format was popular with fans in the stadium and on television.

Unfairly excluded

It is hard to argue against the fact that innocent, clean Russian athletes have been unfairly punished for the actions of others. Russian athletics judges have also been banned from international competitions for doing nothing wrong. Young Russian athletes today face international exclusion through no fault of their own. Many would have not been competing when the IAAF implemented its ban on RusAF athletes in November 2015.

Russia is huge. In terms of land mass, it is the world’s largest nation. In terms of population, it is the ninth biggest (142.3 million). In terms of gross domestic product (GDP) for 2017, it is projected to rank eleventh in the world. Having such a superpower excluded from world athletics is a problem for the IAAF, which must financially develop athletics as well as police against doping.

To return to international competition, RusAF must provide an ‘appropriate official response’ to the findings of Richard McLaren in the two Independent Person (IP) Reports produced for WADA. What that response should constitute has yet to be clarified.

The danger for the IAAF and world athletics is that unless a clear plan is developed for RusAF’s re-integration into international competition, interest within Russia dissipates or dies. This is what Butov is fighting against, as it would be hugely damaging to the sport internationally, as well as domestically. As Butov has previously pointed out, athletics events in other countries have also been affected by the doping crisis affecting athletics.

It is therefore easy to see why the IAAF would be keen to welcome Russia back to international competition. Butov mentions that privately, many officials have told him that they would welcome Russia back as a competitor.

As Butov points out, it will not be easy for the international athletics community to welcome back Russian athletes. This is why Butov argues that cooperation is key. If the current generation of Russian athletes are not touched by the systemic doping outlined in WADA’s two IC and two IP Reports, then RusAF’s continued exclusion is not only unfair on them, but risks financially damaging the sport further.

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