Pass on punishment?
Will IOC again look the other way for one country’s widespread doping scheme?
The scene at the Eaton Centre recently was the type that the Olympics loves to promote. Team Canada unveiled its uniforms for PyeongChang 2018, schoolchildren waved the maple leaf and cheered various Olympians, a moose mascot posed for photos in his Canada jersey and gave everyone a thumbs-up.
The athletes were excited for the Games, they looked sharp in their new duds, and Team Canada showed some love for its corporate partners: all very Olympics.
Up on stage afterward, Dustin Cook, an alpine skier who expects to be competing in South Korea, spoke of his pride in continuing the Crazy Canucks legend on the slopes. He’s excited to get his season going, and lock down his place on Team Canada.
But, ask about the Russians, and the smile fades. “I think the whole situation is kind of ridiculous, and the fact that they are able to compete is a little ridiculous,” Cook says.
Well, yes. There is that.
It has now been 34 months since a German television documentary alleged widespread Russian doping, a scheme orchestrated by the country’s top anti-doping scientist. That led to a World Anti-Doping Agency investigative commission, which led to the Russian scientist spilling his goods to U.S. media, which led to another WADA probe, which ultimately saw the agency call for a total ban on Russian athletes from Rio 2016. The International Olympic Committee demurred, and most Russians still competed in those Games.
And now, despite a monthslong investigation by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren that found a state-sponsored Russian doping program and coverup “that operated on an unprecedented scale,” one that documented how dozens of medal-winning athletes at Sochi 2014 took part in a program in which agents of the former KGB swapped out dirty urine samples in the dead of night, we are now trundling toward PyeongChang with nothing having been done.
A Russian member of the IOC said last month that he expects all of his country’s athletes to compete in South Korea. The IOC, apparently unwilling to take WADA at its word, is trying to replicate McLaren’s findings with its own investigations. It received updates on those at a meeting in Peru last month, but they are ongoing. Richard Pound, the Canadian founder of WADA and an IOC member, was in Lima for those meetings and said in an interview that Russia and doping was not a major part of the agenda.
“The elephant in the room remains unnoticed,” he said. Or the bear, in this case. Asked if he thought it was possible that the IOC, as it did in Rio, would pass on taking broad action against Russia, Pound said: “I sure as hell hope not.”
Expecting the IOC to do the right thing, though, has not historically been the safest of bets.
Its reluctance in this instance is due in part to the unusual nature of the charges against Russia. Normally, doping violations are a simple and structured thing: a test is failed, a backup sample is tested, and if that also fails then punishment is assessed. It’s an absolute liability offence: how the drugs came to be in an athlete’s system is of no interest to anti-drug authorities.
But the Russian story isn’t one of failed tests. It’s one of a whole system where test results were manipulated by the same people charged with conducting them, a scheme so broad and extensive that several years’ worth of negative results cannot be trusted.
Instead of evidence in the form of positive tests, WADA’s conclusions rely on thousands of pages of documents, much of it provided by Grigory Rodchenkov, the former Moscow lab director who says he designed the doping system at the behest of the Ministry of Sport. Rodchenkov’s role in all of this has always been somewhat murky, but a recent documentary, Icarus, fills in much of what was unknown about him.
A U.S. filmmaker consulted with the Russian in 2014 during work on what was originally supposed to be a project about doping in cycling, and in the midst of it the German television report aired and WADA started poking around his Moscow lab.
By the fall of 2015 the filmmaker, Bryan Fogel, brought Rodchenkov to California, and in the spring of 2016 he decided to go public, telling the New York Times, 60 Minutes, and a New York grand jury what he knew. One of his reasons for going rogue was the death that February of Nikita Kamaev, the head of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency. He died suddenly, at 52, of a heart attack, which naturally made his friend Rodchenkov nervous. Telling his story would, simply, make it less likely that Russia would kill him. He remains in hiding in the U.S., with his family still back home.
Rodchenkov comes across in Icarus — a Netflix documentary — as believable, if a bit goofy. He has a penchant for Skype-ing while shirtless and also quoting Orwell’s 1984 at length. Russian officials, up to and including President Vladimir Putin, have waved his allegations away as the ranting of a liar, but the scope of what he has provided is not the work of a simple traitor with a grudge. His stuff has checked out. He told investigators that Russian agents had figured out a way to tamper with “tamper proof” bottles, and closer study found that there were tiny scratches around the lids — evidence they had been opened and resealed.
He told them that certain urine samples had been hastily alerted when Russia discovered that WADA officials were about to seize them from the Moscow lab, and further study found some of those samples contained physiologically impossible salt levels.
As McLaren pointed out in his final report last year, if any of Rodchenkov’s evidence provided demonstrably false, he would have been deported to Russia, to an uncertain fate.
The IOC might wish that it was dealing with positive tests and dirty samples, but that was the whole point of the Russian system: positive results were switched to negative, and dirty samples were swapped for clean.
More testing won’t help. As cheating goes, it was a top-notch system. The money quotes from Rodchenkov in Icarus, as interviewed by Fogel:
“Does Russia have a statewide doping system in place to cheat the Olympics?”
And: “Did Russia swap out dirty urine for clean urine?” “Always.”
This is what makes it the IOC’s choice both difficult and obvious: how can it not ban Russia when its entire anti-doping regime was bogus?
Cook, the Canadian skier, says he knows that a blanket ban isn’t ideal, “but I don’t think there’s enough being done, for sure.”
“I literally had a doping test this morning at 6 a.m. before this event,” he said at the uniform unveiling. “We get tested all the time. And those guys have a system-wide doping scheme? It’s ridiculous.”
And, as Pound puts it, Russia still hasn’t really paid for anything that the various reports and investigations have unearthed.
The track-and-field team was banned from Rio, as was the whole Paralympic team — the IPC showing the spine that the IOC did not — but Russia still won 56 medals in 2016 and will likely finish near the top of the table in PyeongChang if it fields a full team. It was at the Winter Olympics where Russians literally drilled a secret hole in a laboratory wall so their agents could swap out urine samples. And the whole team will be welcomed back?
McLaren, in his final report, reached this conclusion: “I would urge international sport leadership to take account of what is known … and correct what is wrong.” It has been more than 300 days since that report was released. The 2018 Olympics begin a few months from now.
Lawyer Richard McLaren, investigator and report author for WADA, said Russian Sports Ministry officials decided which athletes to save by covering up failed drug tests, and swapped samples containing banned substances at the 2014 Winter Olympics.