Doping in sport – The Economist (blog)
“THE story of how all the pieces fit together seems like fiction,” admitted Richard McLaren, a Canadian lawyer, on December 9th as he unveiled the findings of a second investigation commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency into state-sponsored doping in Russia. But he found the evidence of an “institutionalised and disciplined medal-winning strategy and conspiracy” to be ultimately “immutable and conclusive.” The 144-page report determined that various levels of the Russian government had orchestrated an elaborate system, which involved more than 1,000 athletes across at least 30 sports from 2011 to 2015. “It’s impossible to know just how deep and how far back this conspiracy goes,” Mr McLaren said. “For years, international sports competitions have unknowingly been hijacked by the Russians.”
The findings corroborate much of the evidence already contained in Mr McLaren’s first report, released in July, which investigated claims made by Grigory Rodchenkov, a former director of Russia’s anti-doping lab in Moscow, in a New York Times article regarding an intricate system of cheating and cover-ups. But this document goes further, painting a fuller picture of the breadth of the conspiracy, and laying bare the methods Russian authorities allegedly used to skirt the system. The “magicians” of the country’s Federal Security Service (FSB), a successor agency to the KGB, regularly made dirty samples disappear and clean ones appear. They tampered with allegedly foolproof bottles using thin strips of metal. When a competitor didn’t have enough clean or altered urine to switch in for dirty samples, helping hands provided urine from different athletes from a “bank” stored in Coca-Cola and baby bottles. To ensure that these samples were visually indistinguishable from those they replaced, they mixed in salt and Nescafe coffee granules. Samples from the women’s ice hockey team contained male DNA. For athletes on the country’s list of top performers, Russian testers automatically inputted pre-Olympic results into WADA’s database as negative, regardless of their actual findings. Whenever WADA wised up to one of these tricks, the conspirators came up with a new one. “For every action by WADA, there was a Russian reaction to counter their measure,” Mr McLaren said.
Given the weight of the evidence—a treasure trove of more than 1,100 items including emails, lab analyses and forensic reports that is available to the public online—long chapters of Olympic history will have to be rewritten. The report identified 15 Russian medal-winners who were found to have doped at the 2012 games in London. Ten have already had their medals stripped. Six winners of 21 Paralympic medals at the Sochi games in 2014 provided samples that had been tampered with, and eight more samples contained levels of salt that are physiologically impossible in humans. The report itself did not identify athletes who have not yet been punished. But Mr McLaren said he provided their names—over 500 in total—to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the relevant international sports federations, who will decide on appropriate sanctions.
That could prove to be a weak link, as many of these bodies are strapped for cash and staff and exposed to conflicts of interest. A study conducted in 2015 by the Danish Institute of Sports Studies ranked 35 sports federations under the Olympic umbrella based on standards of good governance. It found institutional rot so pervasive that FIFA, the football organisation notorious for corruption scandals, ranked second-best.
Many international sports governing bodies have rushed to condemn Russia. Thomas Bach, the president of the IOC, said the alleged scheme represented “a fundamental attack on the integrity of sport.” He advocated lifetime bans for any athletes proven guilty, and announced that the IOC’s commissions would pore through Mr McLaren’s reports and that all Russian samples from the 2012 games would be re-tested (as was already occurring for 2014 results). The International Association of Athletics Federations, which governs track and field, also revealed plans to re-test Russian samples, including those from the 2013 world championships held in Moscow. Since April, 99 athletes have been sanctioned as a result of re-testing from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics; 33 are Russian.
In response to the reports, pressure is swelling to strip Russia of hosting rights for major international sporting competitions. Latvia, formerly part of the Soviet Union, has already announced its withdrawal from the world championships for bobsled and skeleton, slated to take place in Sochi in February. Members of the American team are considering a boycott as well. A source of far greater vulnerability for Russia is the 2018 football World Cup. Of the Russian athletes anonymously accused in the report, 37 are footballers. The document also accused Vitaly Mutko, a former minister of sport who chaired the country’s successful Cup hosting bid and is now the president of the Russian Football Union, of allowing state-backed doping scheme to develop with his “leadership and knowledge.” In October he was promoted to the post of deputy prime minister in the Russian government.
Russian authorities have reacted with characteristic bluster, dismissing the allegations as Western-backed Russophobic propaganda. On December 7th, before the report was even released, the country’s “reformed” anti-doping agency named as chair of its supervisory board Yelena Isinbayeva, a retired pole-vaulting great who has long disputed Mr McLaren’s findings. The sports ministry issued a statement flatly denying the existence of any state-run doping programme. Igor Lebedev, a Russian politician, told Russian news agency R-sport that he expected “an additional stream of falsehoods and baseless accusations.” He said he hoped that America’s president-elect Donald Trump, who recently said he does not believe the conclusion reached by United States intelligence agencies that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 campaign in order to help him win, would put an end to further investigations.
Although Russia has suffered the brunt of the reputational damage, neither the IOC nor WADA have emerged unscathed. The report makes clear that their vaunted anti-doping controls are porous at best. And given that whistle-blowers contacted the organisations about Russian cheating as early as 2010, they may have a hard time explaining why their re-testing efforts are only occurring now. Mr McLaren chided the bodies for spending more time blaming each other for the crisis and jockeying for control over the fight against doping than on finding solutions to the problem. “In the past few months, we’ve seen infighting,” Mr McLaren said. “I find it difficult to understand why we are not on the same team.”
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