MOSCOW — The International Olympic Committee is weighing up whether to ban Russia from next month's games in Rio de Janeiro after revelations of a massive doping cover-up, but relations between the two were once much sunnier.
When IOC president Thomas Bach was elected in 2013, he was called almost immediately by Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country was then gearing up to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Bach, a former fencer from Germany, took the call as his IOC colleagues waited to continue the proceedings.
What the two men spoke about isn't known, though they had more in common than a shared interest in the Sochi Olympics, which have since been overshadowed by allegations that Russian officials colluded to sabotage the drug testing laboratory at the games.
Putin is a keen athlete, with judo and ice hockey his favorite sports, while Bach has longstanding sports and personal links to Russia.
Those links will be tested after World Anti-Doping Agency investigator Richard McLaren alleged top Russian officials including Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, a close Putin ally, had personally intervened to cover up hundreds of failed drug tests.
The IOC's executive board meets Sunday and is expected to provide final confirmation for a ban on the Russian track and field team. The board said earlier this week it will "explore the legal options" for banning all Russians from the games, across all sports, following what Bach called "a shocking and unprecedented attack on the integrity of sports and on the Olympic Games."
At an IOC event three days before the opening of the Sochi Olympics, with Putin in attendance, Bach thanked the Russian president in person for his "great commitment" to the games and for the way he "set the pace in this great endeavor."
Bach also addressed the subject of doping, praising what he said were tough IOC rules. "The fight for the clean athletes, this should be our motto," Bach said. "Fighting for the clean athletes means we have to protect them from doping, any kind of manipulation and related corruption."
Bach has been a regular visitor to Russia in his three years as head of the IOC, both before and after the Sochi Olympics. Putin has also shown himself willing to travel to improve contacts with the IOC, giving a well received speech in 2007 in Guatemala — delivered in English, which is rare for Putin — ahead of the vote which gave Sochi the 2014 Olympics.
Since he won Olympic gold in 1976, Bach's chosen sport of fencing has been transformed, most recently by Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov, a Putin ally who has pumped large sums of his own money into the sport over eight years as president of the International Fencing Federation.
That money has increased the profile of one of the more niche sports on the Olympic program, making for a bigger media presence and glitzier competitions.
Bach also has business connections in Russia. After becoming president of the IOC, he kept his other role as chairman of the supervisory board of Weinig, a Germany company which produces woodworking machinery. Weinig, which did not respond to requests for comment, has a strong presence in Russia, with a headquarters near Moscow and offices across the country.
Besides Bach, several other influential IOC members have long been sympathetic to Russia.
Putin was presented with world swimming's highest honor last year by federation head Julio Maglione, who has yet to comment on McLaren's allegations that Russian officials sabotaged the testing program at its world championships last year. Ice hockey federation president Rene Fasel is a friend of Mutko and regular visitor to Moscow.
Patrick Hickey, an Irish member of the IOC's executive board, has been trying to persuade the Russian government to host the 2019 European Games in his other role as head of the European Olympic Committees.
The European Games have run into trouble after a much-criticized debut edition in Azerbaijan last year and the decision of the Netherlands to pull out of hosting the next games in 2019. Tuesday's IOC statement on the McLaren report said the IOC would no longer "organize or give patronage" to the European Games if held in Russia.
Other IOC board members, however, harbor less sympathy for Russia. WADA, which wants Russia's entire team banned from Rio, also has its president Craig Reedie on the IOC board.