News that Russian athletes have been using performance enhancing drugs comes as no surprise. The scale of the doping, however, as detailed by an independent commission has stunned even the most cynical observers. Russia’s “culture of cheating” involved systematic efforts by the highest levels of the Russian state sports administration and equally determined efforts to hide and cover up those actions. As a result, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) last week provisionally suspended Russia as a member — which will keep Russian athletes from joining international competition for an indefinite period. That is the right decision. There can be no meaningful athletic competition when athletes can systematically cheat. Until Russia can provide assurances that its athletes are clean, they should be banned.
The investigation against Russia was spurred by a German documentary released last December that alleged that Russian athletes, coaches, trainers and state officials conspired to dope Russian competitors and then cover up those efforts. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the international body responsible for ensuring that sports are free from performance enhancing drugs, established an independent commission soon. It released its report earlier this month and even the most jaded sports fans have been shocked by its findings.
The report concluded that the German allegations were true. There was a widespread conspiracy to administer and cover up athletics doping and the the Russian Ministry of Sport, the All-Russian Athletics Federation (ARAF) and Russia’s National Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) were involved. Not only were athletes willing participants, but those who refused to cheat were often barred from national teams.
Competitors were given notice of out-of-competition tests and sports authorities helped hide athletes when testers came around. If athletes were caught doping, they could pay the national sports authority to change the results and be allowed to compete. The head of the Russian laboratory was part of the conspiracy, doctoring results (for a fee) and deliberately destroying some 1,400 test samples after being told by the WADA to preserve them. Lab officials who were not in on the swindle were reportedly intimidated by the Russian state security service, the FSB. The FSB also reportedly attempted to intimidate witnesses that the WADA wanted to interview. Significantly, the allegations are backed not by hearsay, but documents, recordings, witness statements and the like.
Initially, Russian officials denied the charges, calling the campaign politically motivated. The head of the All Russian Athletics Federation, Vadim Zelichenok, said the report looked like a “political hit job.” President Vladimir Putin dismissed the charges as “groundless.”
They changed their tune when the evidence was revealed and the possibility of suspension of all Russian athletes from international competition, perhaps even including the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, became real. The Moscow lab was closed and testing will be done elsewhere. A number of athletes, coaches and doctors have been suspended and could face additional charges.
Russian authorities also promised “extensive changes” at the All-Russian Sports Federation, with extraordinary elections to be held, personnel in the managing bodies and coaching staff will be “significantly renewed, and control of the national teams will be increased.” In short, it looks like the Russian government is trying to staunch the wounds by blaming the former leadership.
That strategy is likely to work. International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach met with the head of the Russian Olympic Committee, Alexander Zhukov, to work out a proposal to get Russia cleared in time for next summer’s games. They agreed on a roadmap, which Bach said would “ensure compliance as soon as possible in order to provide participation of the clean Russian athletes at the Olympic Games.”
We hope he is correct. But the problem goes beyond a particular sports administration in Russia. Many other countries have cheated too; they were not identified because that was not the mandate of the independent commission. Most worrying, however, are the allegations that the former head of the IAAF, Lamine Diack, took bribes worth over $1 million in exchange for covering up Russian doping. His successor, Sebastian Coe, denies any knowledge of such actions; he is likely to be telling the truth, but it is hard to believe that one man alone could do such damage.
More troubling still is the damage that has been done to athletics. The reputation of track and field has been dirtied and there will always be accusations and suspicions about the lengths to which individuals, teams and countries will go to win. Most disturbing, however, is the injustice that has been done to those athletes who worked so hard and competed legally and lawfully and were punished for that refusal to cheat. They have been denied recognition and honor for what is, in many cases, a life’s work. Their moment has passed and they now know they were cheated. That is no solace.
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