With one year to go until the next Winter Olympics, the most vexing question about the event's potential success in Pyeongchang, South Korea, has nothing to do with the usual fretting over facilities or snowfall forecasts or security issues. It's how to treat the country that rigged the results in the previous Winter Games.
A year appears to be plenty of time to make an orderly, fact-based decision on whether Russia should participate despite a political-sports complex that enabled organized doping and sabotaged the testing process at Sochi 2014. A year should be enough time to avoid the chaos that attended the Rio 2016 lead-up last summer, when eligibility rulings continued up to and during competition.
Another year should be enough time to take action that assures athletes from all over the world that it isn't foolish and naive to abide by the rules.
A prediction: The decision on Russia will probably come down to the wire again.
Balky, compromised international sports federations continue to address cases of Russian athletes implicated by the explosive McLaren Report -- and the issue of anti-doping policies generally -- in a manner far too inconsistent and languid for the athletes' taste. The World Anti-Doping Agency, in the midst of mulling its own internal overhaul, does not yet possess the legal means to exclude an entire national team.
That leaves the International Olympic Committee, which is unlikely to reverse the precedent it set in Rio and defy a wealthy superpower.
The arguments along the road to Pyeongchang will be the same as they were before Rio: Ban Russia, and risk penalizing some innocent athletes. Fail to impose real consequences, and rogue behavior will persist.
The Russian national anti-doping agency has been formally suspended since November 2015. The most optimistic scenario would bring it back within compliance guidelines in November, a scant three months before the Pyeongchang Games. A coalition of 19 national anti-doping agencies has said that is the minimum standard Russia should have to meet before it gets an invitation to Pyeongchang. Yet individual winter sports federations had to be nudged -- in the case of bobsled, pushed over the cliff by the prospect of a boycott -- to relocate major events from Russia this season. (And the 2018 men's soccer World Cup remains there.)
From the mass of evidence presented by two WADA-commissioned investigations, it's plausible to deduce that top Russian athletes have not been subjected to credible testing in their country for years -- if ever. That hindsight has angered and galvanized athletes who have stepped into the vacuum, determined to not let another Olympic cycle slip into the asterisk zone.
The International Biathlon Union held a special meeting Wednesday, on the eve of its world championships in Austria, to consider a proposal by athletes for harsher fines and other penalties for countries with multiple doping violations. The gathering was scheduled only after athletes threatened to disrupt World Cup competitions. The IBU announced that it would relocate the 2021 worlds -- awarded to Russia amid controversy last fall -- and said it would draft changes in penalties based on the athletes' proposals, likely to go into effect before the 2017-18 season.
Later this month, at the cross-country skiing world championships in Sweden, both International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach and International Ski Federation president Gian-Franco Kasper have agreed to meet with athletes roiled by what they view as a lack of urgency and commitment to clean up their sport. Kasper, a longtime IOC executive board member who formerly served on WADA's executive committee and foundation board, is a walking history of the conflicts of interest many athletes want to see eliminated. That could make for an interesting face-to-face.
If Russia's eligibility hinged on public remorse and penitence alone, there wouldn't be much of a debate. Some athletes stripped of medals have refused to return them. The past few months have been punctuated by continued official denials, allegations of a western conspiracy and nose-thumbing appointments.
The woman named to chair the supervisory board charged with overhauling the national anti-doping agency is recently retired pole vaulter and strident WADA critic Yelena Isinbayeva. In a social media post last month, she dismissed whistleblowers as failed athletes with axes to grind, a jab at reporting by the German television network ARD that indicates a banned Russian coach is still working.
In private, U.S. and other athletes express a fair amount of sympathy for their Russian counterparts and the pressure they were under in the past. But what are they to think of the present and the future? Russian cross-country skiers swept two under-23 podiums and one junior event at the just-concluded Nordic Junior World Ski Championships in Park City, Utah. Russia topped the medal table at the winter World University Games in Kazakhstan over the past 12 days, with a total twice that of the second-place host country. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency collected samples at the Utah event, but as is often the case under the current system, the international federation was responsible for testing and results management, an authority most anti-doping advocates want to see removed from sport altogether.
Track and field's international governing body, the IAAF, this week stated that it is unlikely to lift its suspension of the Russian track and field federation in time for the August world championships. An IAAF task force report noted progress toward compliance with anti-doping standards but said it was outweighed by Russia's defiant attitude and continuing issues with testing obstruction and handling of samples.
As it did before Rio, the IAAF will consider exceptions for athletes who have lived, trained and been tested sufficiently outside the Russian system. Russians who are cleared to compete at worlds will do so under a neutral flag, a notion vetoed for the Summer Games by the IOC.
Over the last couple of scandal-drenched years, the IAAF, with all its past baggage of corruption and see-no-evil, has taken the most stringent approach of all the international federations toward Russia. It shouldn't take the entirety of another year to impose that standard on all of Russian sport and see what, or who, might rise to meet it.