Photo by Associated Press.
Originally Published: July 18, 2016 10:46 p.m.
A scathing report outlining a state-sanctioned doping system in Russia prompted immediate calls for the nation’s entire team to be sidelined from the Summer Games, raising the possibility that the Olympics could go on without a sports superpower for the first time since the 1980s.
The investigation released Monday confirmed a scheme run out of the anti-doping lab in Moscow that ensnared 28 summer and winter sports, from track to snowboarding to table tennis. It lasted at least four years and involved at least 312 positive tests that went unreported at the behest of higher-ups in the country’s sports ministry.
“A mind-blowing level of corruption within both Russian sport and government,” said Travis Tygart, the CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
The World Anti-Doping Agency swiftly called for the International Olympic Committee to consider a full ban of the Russian team from the Summer Olympics, which start Aug. 5 in Rio de Janiero. IOC president Thomas Bach said the committee wouldn’t hesitate to apply the toughest sanctions available.
The IOC executive board will meet Tuesday to begin sorting through options.
It’s no sure thing the Russians will receive a blanket ban. It’s a decision filled with political ramifications that involve a key Olympic country. It puts the IOC in the position of ruling against against one of its biggest supporters, a nation that spent more than $50 billion hosting the Winter Games in Sochi just two years ago. Not since the back-to-back boycotts by the United States in 1980, then the Soviet Union in 1984, have the Olympics been contested without one of its biggest players.
Bach has frequently spoken about the fine line between “collective responsibility and individual justice.” And for every anti-doping agency and athlete group calling for a full ban, there’s seemingly another sports organization or leader urging restraint. “The right to participate at the games cannot be stolen from an athlete, who has duly qualified and has not been found guilty of doping,” said Bruno Grandi, president of gymnastics’ international federation. “Blanket bans have never been and will never be just.”
Gymnastics was not among the sports listed in the report. Wrestling, meanwhile, accounted for 28 of the 312 unreported positives. The head of that international federation, Nenad Lalovic of Serbia, told The Associated Press “we will absolutely follow the decisions of the IOC.”
But in making decisions about Russia’s team as a whole, the IOC could put onus on the international sports federations to determine the penalties.
In the ongoing case involving Russia’s track team, it was that sport’s federation, the IAAF, that ultimately banned the team from the Olympics. But 68 Russian track-and-field athletes are appealing this week to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to compete in Rio, with a decision due Thursday. In a move that accentuates how complicated the matter can become, the IOC has said there is no contingency for a large group of Russians competing under a neutral flag — that Russians should compete for the Russian team if they’re allowed in.
Monday’s report, commissioned by WADA and written by arbitrator Richard McLaren, said allegations made by Moscow’s former anti-doping lab director about sample switching at the Sochi Olympics went much as described in a New York Times story in May. That program involved dark-of-night bottle tampering in order to switch dirty samples with clean ones; it prevented Russian athletes, including more than a dozen medal winners, from testing positive.
But McLaren said the bottle tampering in Sochi was a one-shot deal. Meanwhile, he described tactics he labeled “disappearing positive methodology” that began in 2011, shortly after Russia’s disappointing performance at the Vancouver Olympics. It included the 2013 track world championships and was in place as recently as the 2015 swimming world championships in Kazan — when everyone in Russian sports knew they were under the doping microscope.
Russia’s deputy minister of sports, Yuri Nagornykh, who was also part of Russia’s Olympic Committee, would direct workers at the Moscow lab of which positive samples to send through to be reported to WADA and which to hold back. Assisting the plan was Russia’s national security service — the FSB, the current version of the Soviet Union’s KGB.
“The Moscow laboratory was effectively caught up in the jaws of a vice,” the report said. “It was a key player in the successful operation of a state imposed and rigorously controlled program, which was overall managed and dictated by the (Ministry of Sport).”
Yes, McLaren wrote, it could be made to seem as though workers at the laboratory were acting alone. But his investigation undercut that theory.
“The Moscow Laboratory personnel acted as they did because, as (one) witness expressed, if they did not, they would no longer be employed there,” he concluded.
On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said officials named as directly responsible in the doping scheme would be suspended. He asked for more information from WADA so Russia could conduct its own investigation.
McLaren said out of 577 positive sample screenings he had access to, 312 positive results were held back — or labeled “Save” by the lab workers. More than 250 of the 312 “Saves” came from track and field and weightlifting, but other sports involved included swimming, rowing, snowboarding — even table tennis.
McLaren suggested the numbers could have been higher, but he had only 57 days for his investigation.
Time is crucial because the Olympics begin Aug. 5, and decisions about Russia’s participation in Rio must be made.
WADA president Craig Reedie, who is also an IOC member, said WADA is working to establish guidelines that will help the IOC and international sports federations identify exceptions to a potential Russian ban — notably, athletes who trained in other countries that had robust, clean anti-doping systems. Those athletes, WADA said, should be allowed to compete in Rio under a neutral flag.
McLaren said he was “unwaveringly confident” in his report, and insisted there was no leak, as several sports leaders suggested over the weekend, when draft letters calling for Russia’s ban were leaked to the media.
One of the letters’ co-signers was Paul Melia, who heads Canada’s anti-doping organization and was in Toronto for McLaren’s presentation.
“I’m shocked and devastated by what’s been going on,” Melia said. “And I can only imagine how betrayed the clean athletes of the world are feeling today in the face of this evidence.”