THE Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympics takes place today, but there is a related story that has the potential to steal much of the limelight.

That the participation of Russian athletes in these Games has turned into something of a farce is not news to anyone. Russia is currently banned from international competition due to the doping extravaganza that happened at the 2014 Winter Olympics and therefore its athletes would be prohibited from competing in the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang.

But in a move that displayed a remarkable lack of bottle, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced last month that 169 Russian athletes would be eligible to compete at the Games but under the neutral banner of Olympic Athletes of Russia.

The story was far from over though. With the IOC having banned a further 43 Russians from competition for life following the doping investigation, these athletes took their case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) which independently rules on cases such as this. Last week, CAS overturned 28 of those athletes suspensions and partially upheld a further 11 of the appeals.

Of those 28 athletes, thirteen requested to be allowed to compete in Pyeongchang but were turned down by the IOC. A special IOC panel “agreed the decision of the CAS had not lifted the suspicion of doping” before the IOC President Thomas Bach said: “The absence of sanctions by CAS does not mean that you are entitled to receive an invitation from the IOC because receiving this invitation is a privilege of clean Russian athletes.”

Following this ruling, forty seven athletes took their appeal to compete in Pyeongchang to CAS earlier this week including multiple Olympic champion speed skater Viktor Ahn and biathlon gold medallist Anton Shipulin, neither of whom have previously served a doping ban. A decision by CAS is due today.

What an absolute mess. The full focus of the watching public should be on the Opening Ceremony of the Games but instead, the cloud of doping, once again, hangs heavy over elite sport.

The Winter Olympics currently has little credibility. It was, after all, the goings-on at the 2014 Sochi Games which kick-started this uncovering of widespread and systematic doping. So for the participation of so many Russian athletes to still be up in the air on the very same day of the Opening Ceremony is nothing short of farcical.

But there will be wider ramifications of this latest development than merely damaging the credibility of the Pyeongchang Games. Within sport, it is widely accepted that CAS is neutral, trustworthy and fair. For it to pass a ruling only for the IOC to disregard it is likely to have lasting effects on the world of sport.

Bach did not hold back in his criticism of CAS, nor in his suggestion that changes were required.

CAS may not be perfect but it remains the one place which maintains an air of neutrality. Both the IOC and WADA have, in recent years, been heavily tainted with accusations of conflicts of interest and decisions made due to political reasons rather than purely for the benefit of sport, and in particular, clean sport.

What is so worrying about Bach’s comments is that while he has a few valid points, he has an air of someone who is whingeing purely because he disagrees with the decision. This is entirely the point of CAS – to make objective decisions and there is no other place on the planet to which an athlete can go if they believe they have been unjustly treated.

It remains to be seen whether the IOC officially challenges CAS’ ruling. If they do though, the long-term damage could be catastrophic. Without a ready-made replacement for CAS, of which there are no signs at all, CAS must remain in operation and more importantly, must remain respected.

For the IOC to suggest that they are above CAS leads everyone – or everyone who doesn’t already – to believe that there is not a person in authority within sport who does not have an agenda.

We will have a clearer idea later today of what the next step in this saga is. But the saddest thing is that, once again, clean athletes are being overshadowed by a doping controversy.