The world's top biathlon competitors, frustrated by what they view as inaction in response to recent Russian doping revelations, have successfully pressured their international federation into holding a special meeting to consider stiffer sanctions for countries with multiple doping offenses.
About four dozen athletes and coaches, led by double Olympic medalist Martin Fourcade of France, walked out of a closed meeting with International Biathlon Union officials at a World Cup event in Antholz, Italy on Saturday after voicing their dissatisfaction with the federation's pace in addressing the findings of the recent McLaren Report on state-sponsored doping in Russian sport. Some athletes told media they were contemplating a more public protest -- delaying starts at World Cup events, which are televised live in Europe.
Sunday morning, in a shift from the previous day, the IBU announced it would hold an "Extraordinary Congress" in the days leading up to next month's world championships in Austria.
A press release on the IBU site stated: "The IBU Executive Board fully understands and supports the initiative of the athletes to sharpen the IBU rules for anti-doping offenses towards both the member federations and individual athletes. In order to implement new rules as soon as possible, the IBU Executive Board calls for an Extraordinary Congress to approve rule changes and put them in practice" before worlds.
Three-time U.S. Olympic biathlete Tim Burke said Sunday he was "encouraged" by the IBU's decision. "I think this shows that, when united, the athletes really do have power,'' he told ESPN.
"I am optimistic that the IBU will decide for change,'' Burke added. "The athletes are organized, united and we won't accept anything but change for clean sport.''
More than 150 athletes and several dozen coaches from 29 nations signed a petition last week asking the IBU to impose more stringent penalties on national teams with multiple doping infractions. The petition proposed fines of up to 1 million euros and reduced starting quotas at World Cup, world championship and Olympic events. It also proposed suspensions of up to eight years for individual athletes, although this lies outside the range defined by the World Anti-Doping Agency code.
The IBU initially issued a statement saying the letter was "appreciated and taken seriously,'' but declined to take immediate action, instead referring the proposals to its legal staff and indicating it wouldn't consider rules changes until its next scheduled Congress in 2018.
That wasn't enough for impatient veteran athletes who have seen prior pleas for tougher policies go unheard.
"They were telling us that best-case scenario, knowing how much fair play had been compromised, we were looking at going through two more seasons and an entire Olympic cycle with no changes,'' said Lowell Bailey of the U.S., who joined the other athletes and coaches in a spontaneous walkout. "At that point, it didn't seem like they had our backs, and we weren't willing to sit back and say, 'oh well.' ''
Like many of their contemporaries in other sports, the biathletes were galvanized by the findings of the McLaren report, an independent investigation commissioned by WADA that found compelling evidence of large-scale state-sponsored doping in Russia before and during the 2014 Sochi Games. Russia won four medals in the biathlon competition in Sochi.
"We accept and understand that the IBU is currently conducting an internal investigation with regard to the specific athlete cases identified in the McLaren Report,'' the athletes' petition stated. "We urge these investigations to continue with a focus on ensuring the integrity of our competitions this season.
"Given the unprecedented and urgent nature of the current situation, the IBU (executive board) must act in defense of the integrity of our sport, the preservation of fair competition and the health of all athletes. These measures should be enacted as quickly as possible.''
After Part II of the McLaren report was issued in early December, the IBU suspended two retired biathletes and opened doping cases on 29 more. Saturday, the IBU announced it would open a formal investigation into the Russian biathlon federation but said there was only enough evidence to pursue seven of the athlete cases.
Michal Slesingr, a three-time world championship medalist from the Czech Republic, told ESPN the athletes felt they had to pressure the IBU just to be kept informed of the investigation's progress.
"Pouring gas on the fire looked like the only option at the end,'' he said in a text message, referring to the idea of an in-competition protest. "But what we were focused on mostly is how to protect sport from doping in future so these scandals don't happen again. We were frustrated that IBU didn't change its anti-doping policy and rules earlier to make sure that it will demotivate from doping. They received many requests to do so in the past.''
Slesingr said athletes were especially angered by the IBU's decision last September to award the 2021 world championships to Russia even after the International Olympic Committee's request that organizers of major events "freeze" any preparations slated to be held there. The Russian national anti-doping agency remains suspended by WADA, and WADA could upend the decision to hold a world championship there by declaring it a code violation.
Russia has already given up hosting rights to a biathlon World Cup event this season. The biathletes are the latest group to demand a more aggressive anti-doping stance from a sports governing body in recent weeks. Bobsled and skeleton athletes pushed officials to relocate their 2017 world championships from Russia after a boycott movement snowballed, and cross-country skiers demanded a meeting with international leadership after explicitly criticizing their federation's approach in a letter made public last month.