Denial and Doping: Why You Should Care About Russia’s Olympic Scandal
On April 21 of this year, the torch lightning ceremony for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro will take place in Olympia, Greece. The flame will travel for three and a half months across Brazil, reaching all 26 state capitals before finally lighting the cauldron in Rio’s famed Maracana stadium on August 5, kicking off 16 days of intense athletic competition.
There are already serious concerns for those attending the games this summer. Whether it be delayed construction, practically toxic water levels, or the terrifying outbreak of the Zika virus, South America’s first Olympics have already been marred by controversy and uncertainty.
These issues may sort themselves out by the time the final runner makes his way into the stadium holding the semi-sacred torch, and when the Athletics events begin on August 12, fans from around the globe will see stars such as Usain Bolt, Canada’s Andre de Grasse, and others.
However, there will be a significant void left as the Russian Federation, one of the largest teams from the last Olympics, has been banned from all participation in athletics competition (track and field events) after a shocking revelation surfaced that the country oversaw state sponsored doping that has put into question most of their victories from the 2012 Olympics and the integrity of the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF).
Since their time as the Soviet Union, Russia and its sister nations have dominated Olympic competition, constantly competing with the United States as the most dominant athletic nation on earth. Rumours abounded of Soviet state sponsored performance enhancement, and according to Professor Nikolai Volkov of the Russian State University of Physical Education, Sport, Youth and Tourism, the Soviet Union had in fact created two different institutes to perfect the science of multiplying the amount of red blood cells in the body to enhance athletic performance, known in layman’s terms as blood doping.
“…the Russian Federation, one of the largest teams from the last Olympics, has been banned from all participation in athletics competition”
Despite these findings and the West’s suspicion of Soviet foul play, no Soviet medalists were ever caught doping and subsequently stripped of their medals. Since Russia entered Olympic competition in 1994, they have been stripped of nine medals from six caught athletes, compared to the United States’ ten stripped medals from internationally renowned athletes like Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones and Tyson Gay. Despite shady speculations, there was little proof that Russia was operating any more clandestinely than any major Western nation when it came to doping.
“…produced a 325 page report that uncovered a “deeply rooted culture of cheating” in Russian athletics.”
In December 2014, 10 months after Russia held their own controversial Olympics in Sochi where they topped the medal table, a German TV documentary dropped a bombshell: 99 per cent of Russian Athletes engaged in illegal doping. Furthermore, Russian officials accepted bribes from athletes to keep doping silent. Most shockingly, the IAAF, the governing body for all Track and Field events, was totally implicit in the cover-up. On the program, former 800m champion Yulia Stepanova, wife of former Russian doping official Vitaly Stepanov claimed Russian officials would promise to comply with the doping in exchange for five per cent of the athlete’s yearly earnings, and that many athletes would use fake names while training abroad to avoid out-of-competition doping. The immediate reaction from Russian officials was incredulous denial, with Russian Athletics Federation President Valentin Balakhnichev stating that the allegations were “a pack of lies”, and Russian Doping director Nikita Kamayev adding that the statements were “completely unfounded”.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) embarked on a yearlong fact finding mission while senior members of the IAAF began to resign, with pressure on President Lamine Diack to step aside due to his suspected complicity, leading to his arrest by French officials late in 2015. Finally, on November 9, an independent commission chaired by former WADA President and Montreal lawyer Dick Pound produced a 325 page report that uncovered a “deeply rooted culture of cheating” in Russian athletics. The report stated that the actions of the various coaches and athletes, as well as total inaction by the IAAF led by Diack, led to the 2012 London Olympics being “sabotaged” and suggested that five runners and five coaches be given lifetime doping bans, including 800m gold and bronze medalists Mariya Savinova and Ekaterina Poistogova. Pound also indicted Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko for being complicit in the doping program stating it was “impossible for him not to be aware of it, and if he’s aware of it, he’s complicit in it”. Mutko, who is the chair of the 2018 World Cup committee, an event that already has been called into question due to corruption on the part of FIFA, denied any knowledge of the doping.
Soon after WADA’s report, the sword began to fall hard on the various bodies associated with the scandal. The All-Russia Athletic Federation (ARAF) was suspended with immediate effect on November 13, and the Russian Doping Agency was suspended and decertified five days later.
These actions mean that not only does Russia not have a functional doping agency to test their athletes, but also, if the ban is not lifted, no Russian Track and Field athlete can participate at Rio in 2016.
Russia accepted all punishment, but it soon became clear that the cover-up went further up, as top aide to current IAAF President Sebastian Coe, Nick Davies, was revealed to have sent e-mails to the son of former President Lamine Diack outlining a PR strategy to shield and eventually release the names of Russian athletes caught doping at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow. Davies quickly resigned, and Papa Diack, along with Balakhnichev and another Russian official, were given life bans after being charged with serious breaches of anti-doping rules when it was revealed they blackmailed Russian athlete Liliya Shobukhova for over £435,000.
This indictment of IAAF higher ups was a huge blow to the trust imparted in Lord Coe, a former British Olympic champion who was not only considered clean of the corruption his predecessor Diack presided over, but was given a vote of confidence by Dick Pound, who said that the IAAF faced a long period of “reputational recovery” and could not “think of anyone better than Lord Coe to lead that.” Coe had already faced heat from critics for his ambassadorial role with Nike during his time as Vice-President, where he netted more than £100,000 per year. On January 12, further documents revealed that the IAAF knew of Russian doping as far back as 2009, with 42 per cent of tested Russian athletes failing blood tests, and at such an alarming level that General Secretary Pierre Weis wrote “immediate and drastic action is needed” to Balakhnichev, citing concerns for the long term health and safety for the athletes. The IAAF considered instituting “secret bans” for lesser known athletes and public traditional bans for some of the medal favourites, but as the 2012 London Olympics came and went, with 17 Russian medals in Track and Field, only one Russian athlete had her medal stripped. The athlete in question was women’s discus throw silver medallist Darya Pischchalnikov, who tested positive in May 2012 and was banned for ten years.
Earlier this month, all doping duties in Russia were given over to the UK’s group, with full oversight by WADA. On February 15, former doping chief Nikita Kamayev died suddenly from a “massive heart attack”, 12 days after his predecessor in the role Vyacheslav Sinev died from yet to be revealed causes. It was later revealed that Kamayev was planning to write an expose on the high levels of cover-up Russia had in the doping program. Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly supported the decision to suspend those caught doping, but felt it unfair to suspend the entire Athletics contingent for the actions of some but not all.
There are various worrying and all-together diabolical aspects to this story that could cast a dark cloud of distrust over the entire Olympic movement. The fact that a major country sponsored dangerous blood doping through bribes and hush-ups is distressing enough; the fact that Athletics’ governing body knew about it but did nothing is even more so.
Finally the suspicious and concurrent deaths of two high officials within the investigation process could be most distressing, as it makes the viewing public consider just how high this corruption went, and what is truly at stake. Even WADA, considered a scion of fair and non-subjective investigation has come into question, as Dick Pound’s glowing endorsement of Sebastian Coe shocked many journalists who assumed there was no way that the former vice-president could be unaware of what was transpiring in his crooked institution. When the races start in August, most will tune in to watch high-drama unfold, but it is likely that the highest of the drama has already unfolded, and will continue to do so until more clarity is established.
Ethan Gordon is a staff writer with Juris Diction. He is in 1L.