The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has again banned Russia from marquee international sporting competitions, meaning that the Russian flag and anthem will neither be seen nor heard at the 2020 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo. The decision followed revelations that Russian officials and sports agencies had decided to continue a campaign of denial and deception rather than acknowledge and accept their failure to comply with drug-testing rules. Russian misbehavior must be punished, but it is also imperative to recognize flaws in the drug-testing regime; it too must be reformed.
Doping scandals have long clouded the performance of Russian athletes, and the use and abuse of drugs among its elite competitors appears to be systemic. Forty-three Olympic medals have been taken from Russian athletes for cheating with drugs, nearly one-third of the total of such punishments. In 2014, a scathing documentary shined a spotlight on Russian abuse, prompting WADA to investigate. That revealed a systemic effort to beat drug testers, one that involved the Russian state security services and the highest state athletic officials. WADA imposed a three-year ban on Russian participation in all world track and field events.
The ban did not disqualify all Russian athletes. Rather, competitors proven to be drug-free — and clearance was provided by non-Russian authorities as Russia’s anti-doping agency was stripped of any authority — could compete as “Olympic athletes from Russia,” as occurred during the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, The Russian flag could not fly, nor its anthem be played if one of those competitors won an event, however.
That punishment did not teach Russian officials any lessons. After provisional reinstatement last year, the reformed Russian doping agency first missed deadlines to report data to WADA, and information that was eventually submitted was determined to be “neither complete nor fully authentic”; Russian officials did not realize that WADA possessed data that could be used to check the new submissions and it quickly concluded that files had been tampered with or deleted. Worse, data manipulation occurred after RUSADA, the Russian drug-testing agency, had been reinstated and the files had been backdated to appear as if they were unchanged since 2015.
This week, WADA imposed a four-year ban on Russian participation on major sporting events; neither its athletes, officials or politicians will be able to attend — only athletes proven doping-free can participate in an individual capacity. Russia will be ineligible to host major sports events. While this applies to the Olympics, Paralympics, Youth Olympics and the soccer World Cup, it does not apply to either the European football championship or the 2021 Champions League final, which will be held in Russia, because UEFA, the organizer, is not considered a “major event organization.” In addition, it recommended that Russian officials be barred from sitting on boards and committees related to international sports governance. Russia has 21 days to appeal the ruling.
Denunciations of Russian behavior were fierce. WADA President Craig Reedie noted that “Russia was afforded every opportunity to get its house in order … but it chose instead to continue in its stance of deception and denial.” The International Olympic Committee called Russia’s actions “an attack on the credibility of sport itself.”
The Russian scandals have also focused attention on the antidoping regime, and independent assessments of it are troubling. One authoritative analysis concluded that “anti-doping regulation under the WADA is sometimes arbitrary and too often not grounded in a solid foundation of evidence.” The researchers documented a “series of systemic shortfalls” — such as bad work in WADA laboratories or a failure to identify the performance-enhancing effects of most of the drugs on the WADA’s banned list — that “[challenge] the legitimacy of the international anti-doping regime.”
WADA’s failures do not excuse the extraordinary attempts by Russian officials to cheat. All participants labor under the same set of constraints and Russia has made no claim the rules are unfair or inaccurate; rather it has attempted to create the appearance of compliance. WADA should recognize its problems and fix them and ensure that only athletes who have benefited from Russia’s cheating are banned from competition.
Even without cheating, many athletes from Russia will mount podiums next summer in Tokyo to claim medals. They will be recognized for their accomplishments and for respecting rules that apply to all participants. The absence of their national flag and anthem should not detract from their successes and should remind us of the imperative of fair play and that the focus at these events should be individual (or team) achievement, not sports nationalism.