Tucked in WADA Rules, a Ticking Bomb for European Soccer

Tucked in WADA Rules, a Ticking Bomb for European Soccer

KATOWICE, Poland — Buried on page 49 of a dry procedural document published by the World Anti-Doping Agency last year is a paragraph that threatens to be a major headache for the organizers of next summer’s European soccer championship.

The monthlong tournament, Europe’s quadrennial continental championship, is set to be a celebration of soccer on the continent, played for the first time in multiple countries, with games spread from Dublin and Glasgow in the west to Bucharest and Baku in the east. But because of a little-discussed rules change by WADA, the event — already a far trickier logistical exercise than any previous tournament — could be forced into changing its hosting requirements because of the continuing fallout of a Russian doping scandal.

The European Championship is expected to be the first major international event that will be affected by penalties the World Anti-Doping Agency now looks almost certain to impose on Russia after its investigators unearthed evidence that Russian authorities manipulated thousands of athlete records in an effort to cover up positive drug tests.

As well as seeing its teams and athletes being barred from international sports competitions, Russia would — under tougher WADA penalties — be forbidden from hosting events run by organizations bound by the rules of the global antidoping regulator. That group includes UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, and that has put in doubt both the participation of Russia’s national team, which qualified for the tournament in October, and the role of St. Petersburg, which is scheduled to serve as the host city for three group-stage games and a quarterfinal.

Twelve European cities are scheduled to host games in the tournament, with the final and both semifinals set to be played in London.

The problem for UEFA is that under Section 11 of WADA’s compliance code, organizers of international sporting events must “assess whether it is legally and practically possible to withdraw that right and reassign the event to another country.”

WADA’s executive body is set to meet to make a final decision about Russia’s potential punishment at a meeting on Dec. 9. If a ban on Russia and its athletes is confirmed, Russia would have 21 days to file an appeal to sports’ top court, the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland. CAS would have the final say, and its determination is likely to be made months before Euro 2020 kicks off in June, according to several European sports officials familiar with the matter.

A spokesman for UEFA declined to comment on the status of Russia or St. Petersburg in relation to the European Championship, but other officials at the organization confirmed UEFA is monitoring events.

Yuri Ganus, the head of Russia’s antidoping agency, has called a possible ban on Russia and its athletes “the biggest crisis” since a state-supported cheating scandal was first exposed in 2015. Ganus, who leads the Russian antidoping agency, said last month that he expected WADA to issue Russia a ban of at least three years, which also means it will be unable to send a team to next summer’s Tokyo Olympics.

Jonathan Taylor, the British lawyer responsible for the committee that will recommend what action should be taken against Russia, updated WADA’s executive board on the investigation during meetings in Poland this week. In September, when details Russia had manipulated the data it supplied to WADA investigators, Taylor told The New York Times that Russian officials there would need to “pull a rabbit out of the hat” to provide a credible explanation for discrepancies in the data.

Since then, little has changed, and senior Russian officials have sparred over the country’s guilt. While Ganus said he was sure that information from an athlete database stored at the Moscow laboratory at the center of the cheating scandal had been changed, the country’s sports minister was quoted in Russian news media reports saying that wasn’t true.

The 2015 cheating scandal loomed over preparations for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, and exposed fissures between the antidoping community and the global sports movement. The International Olympic Committee voted against WADA’s recommendation to bar Russia from those Games and instead allowed individual sports federations to decide whether Russian athletes could participate in their events.

That chaos prompted WADA to change its compliance rules, and to take the decision-making power away from the I.O.C. and the dozens of sports federations that signed up to abide by WADA’s rules. Under the new guidelines, all signatories must comply with the penalties imposed by WADA.

Russia’s responses to 31 questions sent by WADA’s investigators have so far not changed investigators’ opinion that the changes to the database they uncovered were deliberate. That does not mean Russia hasn’t tried. Officials who have seen Russia’s response said this week that in addition to answering the questions, the Russian authorities also created what was described as a comic book and a film to try to make their case.

For UEFA, the preparations for Euro 2020 continue. The plans most likely will come into sharper focus on Nov. 30, when a draw to place the 24 qualified teams into four-team pools is held.

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