Stanislav Pozdnyakov: “The upcoming Olympic Games will become a symbol of victory over the pandemic”

Exactly two years ago, Stanislav Pozdnyakov was elected as President of the Russian Olympic Committee. The four-time Olympic champion in fencing has taken over the management of the organization, which is fighting for clean sports and defending its honesty. Who could have known that within two years the whole world, and the sports world in particular, would have to endure an unprecedented challenge due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In these troubled times for world sport, the Head of the ROC gave a lengthy interview to the TASS news agency and spoke about how Moscow plans to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 1980 Summer Olympics and resume full training for athletes, the work of sports physicians with patients, the upcoming WADA hearings against RUSADA and how Russian sport can assist the international sports movement in this difficult period.

– This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Moscow Olympics. Have celebrations been planned? Will they be held online? Are there any ideas such as to launch Mishka into the sky so that at least the residents of Moscow can see it?

– Recently, almost everyone and everything has switched online. So far, there is no reason to suppose that large-scale mass events will be allowed in July or August, unfortunately. Therefore, in conformity with today’s rules and regulations we will most probably organize celebrations online.

Initially, when we planned to hold celebrations at the Luzhniki Stadium, and the ROC was preparing a marvelous, large-scale event along with Moscow authorities, there were plans to invite numerous guests from abroad, representatives of the International Olympic movement, heads of international federations, champions and prize-winners of the 1980 Summer Olympic Games. Now we are well aware that celebrations in the original format can no longer take place. Of course, this is quite the disappointment – not being able to mark such a special date. However, the memory of the Olympic Games is as fresh as ever. Just a few days ago, I watched the film “Oh, Sport, You Are Peace!” which was dedicated to the Games of the XXII Olympiad. I had company watching the film – the current generation of athletes and my children who I hope will become Olympic champions one day. I wanted all of them to see how the Games were organized and held forty years ago.

– What events are currently being planned?

– Exhibitions and even holding some face-to-face meetings, including the Olympic Patrol, for example. But these are only preliminary plans – the only platform that is guaranteed as of today is the Internet. I sincerely hope that the next generation will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1980 Olympic Games on a full scale. Moreover, in Latin “anniversary” is expressed by the numeral “fifty.”

– How about launching Mishka in the sky?

– You’ve come up with this idea, you can surely secure the copyright!

And the heroes of the Olympics? Are celebrations planned in their honour?

– Of course, we will have to reconsider the initial format and understand how we will honour the champions and prize-winners of the 1980 Olympic Games. In this regard, work is already underway. Until a decision has been made and approved by the ROC Executive Board, I cannot give away any details.

– How will the scheduled Executive Board meeting be held this year? Online as well?

– It is scheduled for the second week of June, and yes it will be held online. I have to say that face-to-face communication is much more convenient and more effective at times. However, we will try to draft the Executive Board’s agenda in such a way so as to collectively discuss the pressing issues at hand, listen to all suggestions and make decisions by consensus as was the case in previous years.

– Are you not wary of this universal digitalization? A few days ago the Ministry of Sport held its first meeting of the Working Group on Digital Transformation. But not everyone is ready to accept the new online format, first and foremost, this concerns the popular cybergames. Won’t the true essence of sport be lost in view of this?

– Of course, sport in its classical sense requires certain physical activity. Everything related to various simulators and online games could be interesting for young people, but this has no direct relation to real sport as there is no physical activity involved and Pierre de Coubertin’s motto “Faster, higher, stronger!” is conspicuously absent. I think the classic approach to defining the concept of “sport” will remain.

On the other hand, electronic sport, also known as cybersport, has become very popular and now occupies a large part on the market. The main task of all participants in this direction is to clearly distribute spheres of influence in order to promote cybersport in the most attractive and interesting way. I am inclined to think that in the long run, a compromise will be found between classical sport and cybersport.

– What is your attitude to online tournaments such as the recent At-Home Super League Burpee Tournament?

– I follow these events with great interest – this is absolutely the right way forward in these times. What is more, this is a great opportunity for communication between young athletes. In real life, they do not have many alternatives to meet or compete since each athlete has his own schedule and competitions. Even at the Olympic Village during the upcoming Olympic Games not all athletes will have the chance to communicate with each other.

On the one hand, the current situation has people confined within four walls, but on the other hand, it has opened avenues paving the way for online communication and this makes me happy. We now have many more options for mutual interaction.

For instance, the ROC Athletes’ Commission has started cooperating more frequently by holding meetings online. They conduct joint workout sessions, communicate with fans and participate in various activities. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by our partners in the IOC,

ANOC and EOC – they have posted about this and have suggested using the experience of the ROC. Therefore, of course, I am all for it. And when the quarantine and self-isolation regime is over, I hope we can continue with certain aspects of work online. We have certainly laid the foundation for this.

Although, of course, face-to-face communication can never replace meetings online. The energy is different as well as the exchange of emotions.

– In early May the Russian Olympic Committee, in cooperation with regional Olympic councils, began providing targeted financial assistance to sports veterans. How much money has been allocated for these purposes?

– The number of regional Olympic councils receiving such assistance has reached 74 out of the 82 existing ones. Meaning almost all the councils responded to our proposal. For us, the most important thing was to help people who were in the most diverse corners of our country so that they would not feel abandoned and lonely. This was done for the very first time by means of the Olympic councils. And to be fair they solved numerous complicated issues in order to provide assistance to as many people as possible, and most importantly, this was done from the heart by our entire team. The feedback we received was positive and encouraging. For me, as the Head of the Russian Olympic Committee, this is an excellent response to our initiative. Looking forward, we will continue to pay even more attention to our Olympic councils and treat them as partners in the regions of our country.

– If I am not mistaken councils in many regions have taken matters into their own hands and have started raising additional funds themselves, is that right?

– Our initial goal was to cover about 3,500 people. And yes, councils that had additional resources helped as well. Regional Ministries of Sport also played a crucial role by allowing proactive people to add personal funds. This became a whole movement. The level of personal involvement to assist athletes who defended the honour of Russian sport on the international arena for many years was impressive. I think this will continue and may be carried out on a regular basis. This time round we have managed to attract funds from additional financial sources. Make no mistake, the money did not come at the expense of funds allocated for preparation for the forthcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo or assistance to the all-Russian sports federations. This was an important moment for us.

– Can you tell us a few words about your self-isolation experience – do you mainly stay at home or do you go out at times?

– Yes, I go out. I am currently in Sochi and strolls and individual sports are allowed here, so my family members and I take advantage of this. But during the complete self-isolation regime it was extremely difficult. However, this allowed us to rethink our place in life and some who are drawn to philosophy maybe even altered their worldview (laughs). For me personally, this period will be associated with the amount of time that I spent with my family. Never before in my life could I afford such a luxury.

I had a lot on my plate – my sports world was full of training camps and competitions, I was rarely at home. Afterwards, when I worked in the Russian Fencing Federation holding the position of First Vice President, I was in Moscow while my family was in my native city of Novosibirsk. Therefore, the time that I spend today with my children is definitely a happy bonus that comes with the self-isolation restrictions. My kids have already grown up. But I got another opportunity as a parent to play a further role in their upbringing by setting good examples. I also had the chance to observe the level of professionalism of our modern athletes, how they coped with the quarantine regime, how they improved and engaged in self-development.

– Did you draw any conclusions?

– I learnt a lot and I must say that I am content. I was always convinced that each new generation of athletes is stronger than the previous one, and I hope this trend continues. I can see now that the younger generation is highly-motivated and professional.

– How did you react when you heard that the fencers refused to participate in the first training camp after a long break?

– The situation is absolutely clear and there is no background story. All sports disciplines have their own specifics when it comes to training. At the moment, we cannot involve too many athletes in centralized training, and as they do not know what kind of competitions they are preparing for, what counts most is lost, i.e. the objective of the honed training process. An athlete cannot be in peak form throughout the calendar year – in order to prepare effectively certain milestones are needed.

At the moment, there is not a single project on the international sports calendar that is why athletes who are going to the training camps will perform workouts aimed at keeping fit, nothing more.

The second important point to take into account are the recommendations laid out by Rospotrebnadzor in regard to the training camps. Here I would like to highlight that swimming pools have not got the green light to reopen yet. Accordingly, we can allow water sports teams to join our training camps, but there is no guarantee that they will be able to train properly. The situation is quite complicated.

And finally the issue concerning the age of our respected national coaches. Numerous head coaches in many sports will be present at the training camps, and in accordance with recommendations it is clearly stated that coaches above the age of 65 cannot participate.

The ROC has also prohibited all our esteemed colleagues over the age of 65 from being in the building on Luzhnetskaya. This was done solely for the purpose of protecting their health and safety. The age restrictions put in place at the training camps, one way or another, affect the training process.

Numerous questions remain. But without an attempt to adapt to the current conditions, there is no way to move forward. And today several sports disciplines are leading the way having organized centralized work at the training camps. We are closely monitoring how work continues.

I am in touch with the Minister of Sport Oleg Matytsin on a daily basis, discussing all these issues as well as the information from our partnered NOCs. We are observing at how they are gradually returning to full-time training activities. We need to do everything as efficiently as possible in order to prepare our team. At the same time, we must not forget that an athlete is always the centerpiece and his safety is above all else. No medals or wins can replace good health lost due to negligence.

We spend a lot of time discussing the coronavirus pandemic with the doctors of the FMBA who today are heroically fighting against the novel virus. I want to thank them separately for this. This is, in fact, a civil feat. Nonetheless, our colleagues from the FMBA find time to give us a wide range of useful information in these unpredictable and challenging times: how to behave, how to eat, how to train, and what to avoid. Our common goal is to protect athletes at all costs. The ROC welcomes the opening of numerous training camps, but at the same time, there should be no risks for athletes for whose sake they are open.

– Do you have any information on how many athletes from the national teams got sick?

– While this is not widespread, the situation is under control. Unfortunately, there are some cases. And doctors, unfortunately, are not yet ready to give any practical recommendations, and even more so they can say nothing about whether these athletes will return to their full potential. In any case, each athlete will have to undergo testing at the FMBA before switching to centralized training. An in-depth medical examination may provide more complete information as well as insight.

– How many of our doctors work today in hospitals treating patients with coronavirus?

– The number is not so important, in fact, almost all the doctors of the national teams are now helping their colleagues in hospitals. You know, I was born into a family of doctors and a large circle of my friends are doctors. All these physicians who took the Hippocratic Oath are working at the forefront and our sports doctors are no exception. I think when the situation stabilizes, we can truly appreciate the scale of their heroic work. In this situation, you need to wish them good health and hope for a quick end to the pandemic. We look forward to when they can rejoin their teams.

– How often do you undergo testing?

– There is no need for this yet as I am socially distancing myself at home and I work remotely.

– What is happening now in the ROC building on Luzhnetskaya? Are there empty corridors everywhere?

– Today, the head of the organization reported that the building had about 40 visitors which is quite a lot. Furthermore, we took advantage of the situation when our entire organization, in accordance with the decree of the Mayor of Moscow, switched to remote work – we resumed repairs in the building. Last year, the second and fourth floors were completely renovated, and now work is underway to repair the other rooms and halls. We are due to finish by mid-summer. By the way, during the time that the building was closed, we suspended the lease for our federations – this was done right from the start when the pandemic commenced.

– In your opinion, how has the pandemic affected sport in terms of popularity, relevance and attention?

– I am sure that if the Tokyo Olympics are held next year, they will be one of the most striking and memorable events of our time. The Games will become a symbol of the return to normal life and the victory of mankind over the pandemic. I hope that in the run-up to the Games, scientists and doctors will create a vaccine that will allow all athletes to freely fulfill their longstanding dream – participation in the Olympic Games. As for the millions of fans out there – I hope they can see their favourite athletes in real life.

From a humanitarian point of view, the Games will definitely be special taking place after this difficult and unforeseen challenge to the world.

As for the current competitions, I do not think that the public will become less interested in sport. On the contrary, I believe interest will increase. Fans have started watching competitions even more actively on television as well as the Internet. This includes matches without spectators.

Yes, it looks strange, but this is the new reality, and it has not alienated the fans. I am sure these are all temporary difficulties that we can overcome. Everything will return to square one. To the human mind, the less possibilities there are, the more interest there is. So, I think, after returning to normal life after the quarantine period, interest in many aspects of our life will only increase. And this not only concerns sport, I am talking about art as well – theaters, museums and exhibitions.

– Has it crossed your mind that the Olympic Games may not be held at all?

– Of course, it has. Now everything depends not on athletes, not on functionaries, not even on the governments of the world – everything is in the hands of doctors and scientists. If the Games are not held next year, then, of course, it is unlikely that they will take place at all. However, life does not stop there. Not far off are the Winter Olympics in Beijing and the Summer Olympics due to be held in Paris. My life experience as an athlete, who had both victories and defeats, has taught me that you cannot get stuck on one particular outcome – you need to keep moving forward all the time. If you get things straight, you will realize that the most important thing in the long run is not the end result, but the path leading to it. And I am sure that athletes are capable of enjoying the way leading to victory, as well as overcoming any obstacle no matter how difficult it may be.

– If I’m not mistaken, this is a first in history of the ROC – two Olympic Games within two years. This is going to be quite hectic.

– We are simultaneously implementing two Programmes to facilitate the preparation of candidates for the Russian Olympic team – Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022. From the point of view of the financial and organizational side, priorities were distributed in advance. Yes, at some point it will take greater effort for our main department, which is directly involved in sending the delegation and the team to the Games. But in terms of logistics and other mandatory procedural aspects, we are right on schedule. We have already conducted all necessary preparations related to Tokyo 2020. We have got this covered. In addition, all the financial aspects in covering future expenses have been approved.

– Is it clear now what will happen to the preparations for the 2022 Winter Olympics? Where will our hockey players, figure skaters, and indeed all our winter federations train?

– We are thinking very seriously about the choice of sports facilities for our athletes. As of today there is no way to get acquainted with the sports facilities in China, but as soon as this opportunity arises, our specialists will go to China to collect all the necessary information. If the situation with restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic is extended, we will try to solve the most relevant issues for our sports federations online. The main criteria of the training complexes are well known, and we are in close contact with the National Olympic Committee of China.

I would like to note that there are difficulties in testing snow surfaces in the places where skiing competitions are due to be held. Here, of course, specialists need to visit the places in order to get the necessary findings and conclusions. This particular moment is perhaps a cause for concern, however, all the other National Olympic Committees are on an equal footing. We are waiting for the borders to reopen making it possible to travel to China.

– Am I right in thinking that our athletes will traditionally conduct preparations right before the Games in Vladivostok and Sakhalin?

– Yes, that’s right. We had similar plans for athletes set to take part in the Tokyo Olympics, but since the Games have been postponed to 2021, now we have to evaluate all the current information on the facilities of the Far East regions. Probably, we can hold preparations in the region of Western Siberia, for example, as the time difference with Beijing is just about 1 or 2 hours.

– Talking about winter sports – the situation surrounding Russian biathlon three years before the Winter Games is alarming. It does not seem that the situation will be resolved any time soon. And there is no telling what will happen next. How do our prospects look on the international arena?

– I strongly believe that it is time for our esteemed colleagues from the biathlon union to finally come to agreement among themselves. Biathlon is loved by many fans and today we can observe internal confrontations within the governing bodies of the RBU. What we are all observing is not good – defaming a leader and asking him to voluntarily step down. This does not bode well for the RBU’s image on the international stage.

There is another huge problem when negotiators change very quickly and unprofessionally, both in Russia and abroad. We understand that the rights of the RBU in the International Biathlon Union are now limited and we must find a plausible solution for official reinstatement. Of course, in such a situation, the internal contradictions are interfering with the normal handling of matters. However, this is not uncommon in the sports world – sometimes conflicts crop up, but in this particular case there is very little time left.

Given the increased attention of fans to this sport, too much information has been revealed to the public. Diplomacy requires a certain stillness, and any announcements now just have an adverse effect on the whole process. I urge our colleagues from the national biathlon team to come forward, sit with us at the negotiating table and discuss strategies for resolving all the issues. I hope they find the strength and motivation to operate as one strong unit during the short period of time that remains before the Winter Olympics in Beijing.

– The coronavirus pandemic has eclipsed the hearings between WADA and RUSADA before CAS, but this still hangs over like the Sword of Damocles. The hearing dates are scheduled for the first week after June 6. However, we have information that they could be postponed yet again.

– You know, we specifically sent an official request to CAS for clarification on whether the parties to the process have the right to give any information on the status, duration or format of the hearings. We received an official reply – this can be done strictly by agreement. That is why it is better to make inquiries from the CAS Secretariat directly. It seems to me that this would be the right way to proceed.

– Some of your colleagues have spoken out.

– That’s right, comments, links, and press releases have appeared. I think that our lawyers will gather all the necessary materials on this topic in order to ask the relevant questions.

– How long can the hearings on this case last?

– I hope that the hearing procedure itself will be held as usual – within one week. And I am sure that our case before CAS will follow the normal procedure. Although, I must say, the case is already quite complicated.

– Are you prepared for the media frenzy that will surround these hearings and the number of journalists who will probably besiege the main entrance of CAS as soon as the pandemic restrictions are lifted?

– Soon it will be two years since I was elected as President of the ROC. I expected difficulties along the way, but I could not imagine such unprecedented events such as the coronavirus pandemic and the burden of responsibility for the Moscow anti-doping lab. In 2018, we came to an agreement with the IOC that the ROC would become a full-time member of the Olympic movement; back then we met all the necessary criteria and accepted the imposed sanctions. Now is not the time to ask whether they were fair or not. Nevertheless, here we are again with a new doping scandal. I would be lying to you and myself if I said that I would enjoy the excessive attention on the part of the media. But in any case, we have nothing to be ashamed of: the Russian Olympic Committee, in accordance with the Olympic Charter and without any direct charges leveled at it, has the right to participate in the Tokyo Olympics along with the recognized National Olympic Committees of the world. This legal right must be observed even by those who are not happy with it.

– Thomas Bach released a statement saying that the new WADA rules apply to the Olympic Games allowing sanctions to be applied to the Russian Olympic team meaning that athletes will compete without the national flag. Do you believe that is a possibility?

– As I said earlier, the proposed sanctions are disproportionate to the claims put forward by WADA. As I have said many times before this is an attempt to impose collective punishment on Russian sport and all our athletes regardless of the guilty parties. Russian athletes have been the most tested in the world for many years and they do not hold first place when it comes to doping violations.

The second point here is that there are no accusations on the part of WADA against the Russian Olympic Committee. We are in no way involved in the dispute between WADA and RUSADA; we are acting as an interested third party in this process meaning we cannot be held responsible for the actions or inactions of certain organizations from a legal standpoint. Moreover, WADA wants to apply these sanctions not only to the ROC, but also to individual members. I have already mentioned my stance on collective responsibility.

Additionally, WADA is also trying to revoke RUSADA’s compliance status through the court. Since 2016 RUSADA has successfully undergone two audits and has operated smoothly. Moreover, it is clear that neither RUSADA or the ROC, nor any other Russian athlete had any relation to the situation linked to Moscow’s anti-doping lab – the allegations made in this context are total nonsense.

In a steady flow of attempts to punish RUSADA, we see a persistent desire of our colleagues from the international governing body to assume the right of being an investigator, prosecutor and punisher all at once. I have made the above comment in relation to the statement made by our staunch opponent, Mr. Taylor, who openly confessed that the goal was to “humiliate Russian athletes.”

Everything we are talking about has continued for several years, but we, the people of Russia, remain patient and courageous, overcoming all difficulties. This is what our ancestors did 75 years ago and we must not be weaker in comparison to them.

– Are you concerned that our opponents and “colleagues” may take advantage of the fact that the coronavirus has limited the scope of our actions? The borders are closed.

– Of course, I am concerned. And this is part of the strategy that Western countries use to form public opinion. Today, we monitored information about our athletes’ activities as part of the Russian Olympic Committee’s internal online meeting. The news was quickly and widely spread, even in the Western media. But in some publications, the links were quickly removed and changed. Nowadays, there is a trend of avoiding any positive news about our country. Therefore, I think, the tension will remain, as well as tacit censorship, which goes in line with the trend set out by our opponents.

Our main task is to speak about it, and to speak boldly. Problems in the international sports movement related to doping have no national identity. This is quite obvious to everyone. These issues exist all over the world. To talk about the problems of only one country paints a deceptive picture.

At the same time, I would like our athletes and heads of federations to give no reason for doping scandals. In particular, this is what all our educational professionals aim to achieve. It is difficult to change the outlook of a person who decided to cheat at a mature age. Our target audience is the younger generation. They should be fully aware that with one bad decision, they can ruin their lives and careers. There have been numerous cases when a person achieved great results, but, when caught doping, the ensuing scandal radically changed and ruined their life. However, their mindset is changing gradually and this is a good thing.

– Is that true for everyone?

– We are not trying to conceal anything. We speak openly about the problems that we have. Publicity and the denouncement of deceitful role models is one of the main challenges. This is a sort of indicator, if you will. The more people have a negative attitude towards athletes who have achieved results in a dishonest way, the more opportunities we have to evade problems in the future.

– Now a question about the problems that could not be avoided. The $5 million to be paid by the Russian Athletics Federation to World Athletics today – is that not too harsh a punishment for an already weakened federation?

– The sum is not $5 million anymore, but $10 million in case payment is not performed before a specific deadline. From my point of view, this is some kind of numbers game for earning money from a single national federation. I am not completely certain, of course, but pay attention to the news about the World Athletics asking the IOC for the funds that are distributed at the end of the Olympic Games in advance. The IOC is a non-profit organization and, accordingly, a large portion of the funds earned on TV rights is distributed among international federations. Several federations have asked for funds in advance, and in my opinion, this shows this shows their precarious financial situation. World Athletics was the first to make this statement publicly. The ten million they are demanding from the Russian Athletics Federation, plus the money for the status of Authorized Neutral Athletes from Russia is all more likely an attempt to put a national federation on a subscription fee rather than to find a constructive solution to resolving the issue of officially reinstating RusAF.

Taking into account that World Athletics has allowed only 10 athletes to participate in the Olympics, this means that one million dollars for each athlete is now on demand from RusAF. This is challenging, to say the least, and I have great doubts about the legitimacy of such actions by World Athletics.

– Won’t the Russian Olympic Committee have to take on the issue of financially resolving the situation?

– The ROC cannot assist the Russian Athletics Federation in this matter financially, that is absolutely certain. We do not have an item of expenditure to pay such large amounts to the national federations. Besides, every All-Russian sports federation has and is obliged to maintain a high degree of autonomy in accordance with international law and federal laws of the Russian Federation.

And one more thing: each wrong-doing should have an adequate degree of punishment. A million-dollar fee per athlete is out of bounds, and I have no idea how one can accept such conditions. We have seen a lot of cases when we had to pay fines. Take the IBU, for example — the sum was way less and there was a different procedure, even though biathlon in northern countries is just as popular as track-and-field athletics.

– Are we still ready to host international competitions if certain countries refuse to organize them owing to the crisis, as our Minister stated at the beginning of the pandemic? Why do we need to do this when we are repeatedly accused?

– I support the Minister in this matter. The actions of the World Anti-Doping Agency cannot be equated with the work of international sports federations. WADA is one matter, but the IOC and the International Federations are a very different story. We are helping to stage major sporting events in Russia completely free of charge, and more often than not, the expenses for the host country outweigh the profits. I’m not talking about competitions that can bring commercial success to the Organizing Committee as there are not so many of them. More than 80% of the federations have problems now. Some have had to reduce the number of world championships to one event every two years, while others have had to halt the world youth championships.

Russia’s willingness to help these federations, as well as the athletes who represent Russia in these sports, is our mission. We will stick to this principle despite any attacks or accusations. We cannot allow ourselves to appear offended in any way. The truth is on our side, and in the long run, everything will return to normal. Russia has been and will remain one of the world’s strongest sports nations.

– What contribution can Russia make to restoring world sports after the pandemic?

– We summarize all the information that we receive from our doctors and from the FMBA, then we pass it on to the International Olympic Committee so that all our partners can benefit from it.

Secondly, we can offer our experience in returning to training bases and resuming workouts and competitions. Maybe what the football players are doing now will allow to involve other sports as well? In any case, this is valuable experience that we can put forth.

If WADA’s sanctions are imposed in regard to the World Championships, the European Championships and the World Cups, no federation will cross out any event that is not subject to these sanctions. International sport needs Russia, just as Russia needs sports competitions to be held in the country. We can now see how the infrastructure of cities and regions is changing thanks to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the FIFA World Cup, as well as the Universiades in Kazan and Krasnoyarsk. Today, Russia is a rightful and reliable partner for international sport in every respect.