ROC’s President Stanislav Pozdnyakov interview to RBC

The President of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) Stanislav Pozdnyakov answered to the questions of RBC and spoke about the reopening of training bases and the financial influence of pandemic at the Olympic movement.

What difficulties lie ahead as training centers reopen after the lifting of coronavirus restrictions?

The Ministry of Sport in May sent recommendations to regional leaders on how to proceed on lifting coronavirus restrictions. Since May 25, the main training centers of the country, “Novogorsk” and “Ozero Krugloye”, have resumed operations. – RBC

– Prior to this, the centralized training of all athletes in all training bases was practically put on hold. This caused serious changes not only in our everyday life, but also in the sports sphere. Therefore, the reopening of sports classes and training centers is a very good signal.

Right from the very beginning, we carefully monitored how our partnered NOCs Olympic dealt with the pandemic so as to create a comprehensive and objective plan of how we should emerge from quarantine and minimize all associated risks.

Lockdown measures were introduced in Russia a few weeks later in comparison to European countries. Therefore, when reopening sports facilities, we carefully studied the experience of our colleagues, taking note of all negative aspects so as to avoid mistakes.

We also devoted a lot of time to studying the possible consequences of coronavirus on athletes’ bodies and came to the conclusion that if the virus can significantly worsen the quality of life for ordinary people, it can have even more catastrophic consequences for athletes.

We are working very closely with our colleagues from the Federal Medical-Biological Agency (FMBA), including in terms of information exchange with leading specialists and doctors of the FMBA in order to provide information to athletes during this difficult time on how to behave during quarantine, how to train, how to eat right, and how to take into account the psychological aspect.

I would like to note that so far our athletes have done a great job and their professionalism is increasing with each passing month. Coaches do not need to force athletes-candidates to train harder by breathing down their necks all the time. Without exception, all candidates vying to join the Russian Olympic team independently trained at home by all means available. Looking forward, it will not be difficult for them to return to previous levels of sporting fitness they had before March when the postponement was announced.

– Was it a good idea to leave the Novogorsk training center open when all other bases had been shut down?

Since March, all training facilities have been closed. An exception was made only for the Novogorsk training center, which is the leading training base for the national teams of Russia. Later on, two persons who were in Novogorsk were suspected of having coronavirus – the head coach of the national gymnastics team Andrey Rodionenko and gymnast Sergey Naydin. They were repeatedly tested for COVID-19 and all results came negative. But the training base had to be closed. – RBC

– At that point the Russian Olympic Committee actively tried to convey to all our colleagues from the Russian sports federations that centralized training was ruled out since it could have catastrophic consequences for the health of athletes. And if we ask the question: “What is more important – health or an Olympic medal?” the answer is, of course, health.

– Was there no demand in leaving the base open?

– I cannot say that there was no demand. But it was definitely not the right time to do it.

Why were only gymnasts and swimmers allowed to train? Was this something to do with the personality of Irina Viner-Usmanova – she received the go-ahead, while others did not.

– I would not say that decisions are made based on any personality. Each case is individual and each sport has its own well-developed training methods. We must also take into account the circumstances: specific athletes, groups and national teams were affected by the coronavirus.

Let’s not forget about travel restrictions, the compulsory quarantine period after trips and so on. Even now, when centralized training has been resumed, not all athletes and sports federations consider this to be the right way forward.

The biggest problem today that exists in Russian and international sport is the lack of a clear competition calendar. Yes, we know the new dates for the upcoming Olympic Games. We also know that most international federations confirmed, or in some way altered, qualification procedures for the Games. But not a single federation has fully published the draft calendar for the current sports season.

In this regard, questions such as “How do we proceed?” and “Which competitions do we prepare for first?” remain. It is quite clear that it is impossible to simply train throughout the year remaining in peak form the whole time.

But there are sports, including those you have already mentioned, which require that athletes be in peak form so as not to lose their high performance level. Therefore, it was they who first remained in quarantine in Novogorsk, and now, when the centralized sports bases are officially opening, they are first in line for training, while other federations are taking a break to see how events unfold.

– Now testing for COVID-19 is being conducted. Are there any new cases?

– Those who arrive at the training centers are required to take tests that are carried out during a period of two days in the lab. Thus, athletes are now in a kind of quarantine inside the training centers. After receiving results, they proceed according to protocol.

– Has the ROC lost any sponsors due to the pandemic?

– It should be noted that our general sponsor, PAO Gazprom, has fully fulfilled all obligations, and all preparation programmes for Tokyo and Beijing are going according to plan. In general, all our marketing partners are ready to continue to support us, but some have encountered certain difficulties owing to the specific nature of their sphere of activity.

– May I ask which partners have encountered problems?

– It would be incorrect for me to discuss this now. I would like to stress that none of our partners have renounced obligations in regard to the ROC despite the adverse circumstances. For us this is the most important point.

In the current situation, I can confirm that despite the need to redistribute several financial resources, mainly due to optimizing our domestic expenses, during the preparation period for the Tokyo Games which has increased by 1 year, the ROC remains fully financially secure and fulfills all its financial responsibilities, including in relation to our partners and the Russian sports federations.

On our part, we will try to minimize the financial losses that our sports federations are now suffering in connection with the postponement of the XXXII Summer Olympics.

– As the Games have been postponed for a year, has the cost estimate increased?

– Of course. We have a financial plan designed for four years (2018-2022). Within the frames of this plan, we redistributed part of the funds towards individual areas of activity and also towards preparations for the upcoming Olympic Games.

As part of the Tokyo preparation programme, we now have expenses for 5 years. However, in relation to Paris 2024, the programme will be implemented during three years instead of four. Thus, there will be no cardinal changes.

We are now preparing a report together with one of the largest audit companies in order to determine the amount our federations have lost. After we get the result, we will be able to come up with further steps, including ways on how to assist our federations.

–What sum was taken from the Paris 2024 programme?

– I can say that the total amount of additional funds allocated to prepare for the Tokyo Games amounted to about 270 million rubles. This was not only money from the Paris 2024 programme. A significant part was allocated as a result of optimizing other expenses not related to the training of athletes.

– When you say optimizing, does this imply reductions in certain subsidiary divisions of the Russian Olympic Committee?

– Yes, exactly. And these reductions were not due to the fact that we did not need the services of these divisions, but as a consequence of the current conditions, they were not involved in active daily operations. At the same time, we were in need of specialists in other priority areas. Therefore, our main priority was the most effective use of the expertise of existing ROC employees.

– What divisions were deemed as ineffective?

– We do not have any ineffective divisions. The main issue here is to optimize divisional activities in accordance with the current circumstances. For example, the ROC Innovation Center went through this procedure. Previously, the Innovation Center was responsible for constant interaction with our partners from the sports federations, but today we have another urgent task – to transfer work from the ROC building to training centers where it is most needed.

A second example is the visa center. A large number of our athletes, representatives of our sports federations and ROC employees constantly travel abroad. The visa center was created to provide services in this direction. However, today Russia has numerous services providing visa support, therefore, costs can be optimized in current market conditions.

At the same time, we are now responsible for a very large amount of work related to visa support and entry invitations for our colleagues into Russia. We have even hired specialists to the ROC staff in order to deal with these matters. In doing so, we have made an attempt to balance the workflow, and this has shown us that each and every employee is valuable in his own right. And the main task of the head is to enable employees to express their full potential as much as possible.

– How much will be saved after optimizing  expenses?

– Approximately 30-40 million rubles will be saved annually.

– Did the Russian Olympic Committee implement any new projects that people have not heard about? Were athletes involved in these projects?

– We actively involved athletes in our various online projects. The ROC Athletes’ Commission also played a crucial role. Our Olympians organized training sessions, special competitions and challenges on social media; they participated in charity events, carried out socially significant work, provided support for the medical staff and productively interacted with their colleagues from the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

By the way, the International Olympic Committee expressed interest in our projects related to the work of the medical staff. The Russian Olympic Committee has conducted this important work online for two months, which has helped to revise our approach to several internal organizational processes.

It was important for us, firstly, to enable athletes to display their potential accumulated during this time online. They should know and see that they still matter and that everything is being done in order to create the most comfortable conditions for them to get through this difficult period with honour. The second aspect concerns things that we put off for the long term – afterwards it takes quite a while to get them done. For example, during the quarantine period we resumed repairs in the ROC building on Luzhnetskaya embankment.

Also we continued to support our regional Olympic councils and sports veterans – this is very valuable and important to us. In general, I can say that these two and a half months have been busy and interesting. After returning to the usual mode of work, we will have a wealth of experience that can be used in the future. In any case, each crisis is an opportunity to take a fresh look at what is happening around you.

– How do you assess the possibility of Japan hosting the Games in 2021? Will they take place or not?

– We assume that the Olympic Games will take place next year. Another aspect is that there are a number of difficulties that are beyond the competence of the IOC.

What I mean is the ability to safely host the Games in terms of the necessary vaccination of all participants and guests. The biggest challenge today is creating an effective vaccine. There are difficulties in this regard, but given that all the best scientists in the world are working on creating one, I believe we will be successful. It is clear that we cannot undertake this process independently, however, by combining the efforts of all countries and involving the best minds in science and medicine, I believe that this crucial task can be solved.

It is now clear that the upcoming Olympic Games will become the most ambitious and perhaps the most important games in the modern history of the Olympic movement in terms of the level of interest and attention.

If the Games are held on a high level with all the necessary safety requirements, then this will undoubtedly serve as a global triumph proving that overcoming political contradictions between countries is possible only by joining forces and working closely together. The Games could become a symbol of unity. Therefore, I am optimistic about the prospects of Japan hosting the XXXII Summer Olympics and I hope for profound progress within the science community.

– On May 15, the WADA Executive Committee Meeting was held, however, no official statements were made. Any new information in this regard?

– The Russian Olympic Committee has no jurisdiction over the governing bodies of WADA, so we are focusing on information from open sources, including WADA’s press releases. We can get all the necessary information there. First of all, we are closely monitoring the results of the IOC executive committees which is of more interest to us.

– Doping cases have increased, isn’t that right?

– Yes, at the moment, all I can say is that the cases you mention have been referred to international sports federations for review. After the federations have studied and fully analyzed all the materials, decisions will be made on a case-by-case scenario based on the relevant evidence. If the defendants appear, then they will have an opportunity to argue their case.

Nonetheless, I am a bit worried that WADA has already started putting pressure on international sports federations, arguing that if the agencies do not give out the necessary punishments, then WADA reserves the right to challenge the decisions of the international sports federations before CAS.

Thus, already at the stage of providing information we can see serious pressure.

– Why did CAS rule on closed hearings on the WADA-RUSADA dispute? Was the initiative voiced by the Russian side?

– The rule of thumb in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) is to hold almost all hearings behind closed doors. In our case, due to the importance and large amount of information that will be presented during the hearings, as well as taking into account the high level of public scrutiny, this decision came on the part of CAS. RUSADA, being the defendant in this case, also put forward recommendations in favour of closed hearings. That was a logical step owing to the severity of the issue at hand.

However, if we take a look at the mass media, then there can be no talk about privacy. Our foreign opponents in the proceedings before CAS constantly drop tidbits of information related to this case, which at any rate puts pressure on the judges. Therefore, we cannot characterize the whole process as being closed.

On our part, we specifically sent an official request to CAS in order to clarify whether the parties to the process have the right to divulge official information, for instance, on the status or duration of the hearings to the public. The CAS Secretariat replied that this could be done strictly by agreement directly with the international court. This signals that CAS is not interested in making these hearings public.

Meanwhile, we deem the mandatory implementation of the recommendations of the CAS Secretariat by all parties. It is extremely important that the proceedings be devoid of any pressure so that an impartial and balanced decision can be delivered.

In fact, if you analyze this particular case, you need to remember that this dispute was brought before CAS by WADA and the agency will have to provide compelling evidence in terms of the technical part which will have to be carried out by technical specialists and international experts.

As the final verdict can affect us, the ROC entered into this process as an interested third party and we continue to insist that the consequences of WADA’s decisions could have an adverse effect on our athletes. Once again, we reiterate that we consider it completely unacceptable to apply collective responsibility or collective punishment.

Regarding our athletes, for several years now they have been the most tested athletes on the planet. And Russia, despite the huge number of doping tests both during the competition and out-of-competition period, does not hold first place when it comes to aggregate doping violations.

Another important point I would like to note is that RUSADA is fully operational and, even in the current conditions of the coronavirus pandemic, work is being conducted on the preparation of testing programmes for our athletes. How can the Executive Committee’s decisions and sanctions serve RUSADA, which has successfully passed two external audits by WADA itself? – The answer is they cannot! And so it turns out that is not about fighting against doping, but a desire to punish Russian sport based on national identity.

Personally, and this is shared by all the members of the ROC, I am very much concerned about the consequences in regard to ROC members if the court upholds WADA’s decision. From my viewpoint this is disproportionate given that both WADA and IOC clearly indicated that there was no direct evidence of our involvement regarding the LIMS database manipulation. At the same time, we are asked to bear responsibility without any solid grounds or claims.

– How would you evaluate RusAF’s performance today? What changes do you see in the sports federation?

In February, UAC Board member Evgeny Yurchenko became the new president of the All-Russian Athletics Federation (RusAF). On May 12, World Athletics released a regulation stipulating that all adult Russian athletes will have to pay for neutral-status permits. Athletes over the age of 20 will have to pay $250 for registration, while those aged 18 to 20 will have to submit $100. Those under the age of 18 will be able to acquire neutral status free of charge.

In March 2020, World Athletics fined RusAF $10 million for interfering in investigations of Russian high jumper Danil Lysenko. Furthermore, the number of Russian athletes who could compete in international championships as neutral athletes was limited to ten. Later on, the World Athletics Council decided to resume the official reinstatement procedure of RusAF.

– For a long time, the previous leadership of the federation tried to set things right, but too many mistakes were made only aggravating the situation, as a result, the Ministry of Sport and the Russian Olympic Committee took the necessary course of action. The ROC, in particular, convened the extraordinary election conference and during a period of 6 weeks incurred all the financial expenses of RusAF. That was about 25 million rubles per month for various competitions since during suspension competitions cannot be financed from the federal budget. Therefore, the ROC took on that burden of responsibility. We decided to support the All-Russian Athletics Federation and held the winter championships of Russia and several other competitions in track-and-field athletics.

The second most important point is that we served as an observer for fairness during elections to the leadership of RusAF. To this end, a working group was formed. As a result, we transferred the management of the federation to the newly formed bodies, acted in accordance with the RusAF Charter and recommendations, as well as requirements from World Athletics. The new leadership of RusAF, as an independent management body, has entered into the negotiation process with the international athletics federation. On its part, the ROC could only provide feasible organizational assistance as well as diplomatic, legal assistance so as not to violate the rules and independence of the federation in any way.

At present, a working group has been created in the All-Russian Athletics Federation which includes specialists, from the ROC as well, who provide the relevant assistance. Looking forward we await the results of its performance. So far I do not see a roadmap for official reinstatement into World Athletics. In contrast, numerous questions remain. What is more, World Athletics announced fines in the amount of $10 million.

From my point of view, this figure is quite bizarre taking into account that only ten athletes were allowed to participate in the Olympic Games. Ten is a small number, but this is a separate issue. As for the amount of $10 million which means $1 million per athlete – this raises even more questions. And it’s not just me.

This may have been financially motivated. Lately, several international sports federations have turned to the IOC fund requesting to provide advanced payments from the Tokyo 2020 revenue. That is, at the end of the Olympic Games, the IOC redistributes part of the funds among international sports federations from revenues receive from the sale of TV rights for instance. On its part World Athletics has already asked for this payment to be made in advance. Following the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, the revenue share for World Athletics amounted to $40 million. When making comparisons, we can conclude that in terms of finances World Athletics is not in a good place. This can be confirmed by data from open sources which give a clear indication – for several years now World Athletics has suffered serious losses. Thus, $1 million per Russian athlete is a good way to make up for financial damage.

It is quite clear that this year most of the international sports organizations, including World Athletics, will not be able to hold competitions due to the coronavirus pandemic. Accordingly, the pool of sponsors and funding levels are likely to decline. But it would be extremely bizarre to demand that the responsibility for fulfilling any financial obligations of an international federation should be undertaken by the Russian side. This is very convenient in light of the crisis, however, not every federation is taking a similar line. For instance, the International Biathlon Union (IBU) is adhering to a completely different stance in terms of financial sanctions against the Russian Biathlon Union (RBU). There are no exorbitant demands on its part.

– According to our data, RusAF is currently experiencing very serious financial problems, namely, employees have not received salaries for more than two months now. How is the ROC addressing this issue?

– During the period when RusAF was without leadership, the ROC did the right thing by paying out salaries to RusAF employees. In this direction, we have done everything possible within the frames of our charter and financial plan. Moving further, we still expect that track-and-field athletics as a sport, despite all existing difficulties, will find sponsors. Unfortunately, this problematic situation was aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic difficulties in various companies. Therefore, patience is needed and work should continue on finding partners.

– Is there a risk for Yurchenko to repeat Shlyakhtin’s path – high expectations and negative results?

– The most important thing for Evgeny Yurchenko at the moment is to tackle the above challenges, i.e. the financial stability of the federation and its governance. The previous leadership, due to the scandalous ‘Lysenko case’, were handed disciplinary charges by the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) losing all accountability.

By the way, Yurchenko was the only candidate who wished to take responsibility in resolving this problem. Unfortunately, no other person volunteered in our country with a population of over 140 million. This, in my opinion, is cause for alarm.

The image of athletics has been undermined, both domestically and on the international arena. We are well aware that almost every fourth case of doping rule violations comes from this sport. Thus, from here on out the steps to be taken by Evgeny Yurchenko, who now bears full responsibility, will determine not only his future career, but the future and survival of RusAF as an organization.

– Let’s return to the Winter Olympics in Sochi – could you tell us how things stand regarding the reallocation of medals?

On February 15, 2020, the Anti-Doping Hearing Panel of the International Biathlon Union issued decisions in the cases of Russian biathletes Svetlana Sleptsova and Evgeny Ustyugov, who were charged with anti-doping rule violations based on analytical findings recorded in the Moscow Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) database.

According to the decision, Ustyugov’s results from August 27, 2013 through to the end of the 2013-2014 World Cup season were disqualified along with all medals, points and prizes. This also included the 2014 Winter Olympic Games resulting in Russia losing first place in the gold medal count.

As a rule, athletes file appeals against these decisions with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). Neither the RBU nor the athletes you mentioned directly contacted us regarding this issue.

Caring for an athlete’s clean reputation is one of our main tasks. Therefore, I am confident that in this matter the Court of Arbitration for Sport will deliver a balanced decision allowing us to move further on.

– Could we regain first place in Sochi?

– Let me remind you that in 2018 several Russian athletes also lost medals won in Sochi. After appeal, 28 athletes had bans lifted with medals retuned.

– The issue of naturalization in sport is highly sensitive. We have two more years until the Winter Olympics are set to be held in Beijing. Russia has at least 6 figure skaters of the highest level. But not everyone can qualify due to the Olympic quota. How would you react if several athletes choose naturalization?

– Our modern world has become open and not only athletes but coaches as well are changing citizenship in the sports world. This is quite normal and this process reflects the philosophy of sport – countries without borders, etc.

We have numerous foreign athletes who are naturalized when we look at football and other team sports.

I won’t say anything about figure skating. Let’s talk about wrestling for instance. How many Russian wrestlers represent foreign countries? The situation with wrestling is much more complicated: each weight category permits only one athlete (not three) who has the right to perform at the Olympic Games. Therefore, I believe that this is a normal situation in sport when, owing to the extremely high competition, federations give second-tier athletes an opportunity to have a go at major international competitions performing under the flag of another state.

This does not mean that athletes cease to be patriots of Russia or love their homeland less. This is the state of affairs today and athletes have a very short period of time during which then can achieve sports triumphs that is why some resort to any means necessary.

I will never condemn athletes who have changed sporting nationalities.

– Not so long ago, Mikhail Degtyarev, Chairman of the State Duma Committee on Physical Culture, Sport, Tourism and Youth Affairs, announced that the state should gradually cease financing sport. What level does Russian sport need to reach for such self-sufficiency?

– It should be expounded that Mikhail Degtyarev was speaking about professional sport. We often mix up the concepts of professional sport and high-achievement sport. When it comes to high-achievement sport, this implies meeting the highest requirements and being a role model for the younger generation who attend youth sports schools. This implies athletes who serve as the national pride and who bring sporting fame to their homeland with their hard-earned victories. High-achievement sport serves as a pyramid of physical culture and sport of a country. The more triumphs and bright victories our athletes have, first and foremost, at the Olympic Games, the more young people go in for sport, according to statistics. And the more people go in for sport, the more opportunities we have for training new champions.

The state invests in the development of sport as a whole, including high-achievement sport, and works on improving the health and life of our fellow citizens.

In contrast when we talk about professional sport, we mean, first and foremost, commercial competitions on an ongoing basis. The goals and objectives of professional leagues are slightly different in comparison to mass sport or amateur sport. And from this point of view, some question the validity and rationale of the state financing professional sport which is not the first time this issue has been raised.

– Let’s move on to the quick question part. In your opinion, who is the most underrated athlete today?

– Taking into account an athlete’s status in relation to his achievement level, then I would say one of the most outstanding hockey players in recent years – Alexander Ovechkin. He holds numerous titles but he has not yet become an Olympic champion. I believe this is unfair as he is extremely talented and has remarkable skill.

– If you had one million dollars what would you spend it on?

– I can’t even imagine having a million (laughs). I don’t make that kind of money either. I am almost 50 and I am used to living in the real world without any illusions. I do not entertain dreams. By the way, speaking of dreams.

Recently, one big dream came true. In my native city of Novosibirsk, a modern fencing center was launched with the help of Alisher Usmanov. That was a great occasion for joy and pride.

– Who would you like to chat to the most?

– Chat? You know, I do not regard that as a problem as I have many opportunities to chat by using all available modern means of communication including my mobile phone. But talking more broadly, then, of course, I really miss my friends and my parents who live in Novosibirsk.

I have not seen them for quite a while and now there are even more complications due to travel restrictions across the country. They play an important part in my life and I would love to chat with them face-to-face.

– Is there any particular place you would like to be in right now?

– I miss the usual hustle and bustle of office life. So I would say in my office at the Russian Olympic Committee in order to get back to work as soon as possible and go back to the way things were before this crisis emerged.