As the October 31 deadline for the International Ski Federation (FIS) to bring a doping case against Alexander Legkov and five Russian teammates nears, it’s not just fans of the Olympic gold medalist who are waiting to see what will happen.
Other racers, too, have a big stake in the outcome. For them, whether FIS brings a case or not feels symbolic of whether action will ever be taken to resolve the allegations of years of systematic doping orchestrated by the Russian state.
FIS says that it is waiting on evidence from a commission which is part of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). In an email to FasterSkier, Legkov’s lawyer, Christof Wieschemann, wrote that the IOC commission would have a hearing for his client on Monday.
“We’re getting really close and I haven’t heard anything [from FIS] yet,” said Rosie Brennan, a U.S. Ski Team member and athlete with the Alaska Pacific University elite team. “I guess that’s one of my biggest fears. It’s what is really going to tell us if the IOC chose to do more investigations just to drag things out. If FIS can’t make a decision by October 31st because these investigations aren’t finished, well, there we have our answer.”
As the controversy over systematic doping in Russia continues unresolved, athletes are becoming louder in demanding action.
Back in December, over 100 cross-country skiers signed a letter expressing frustration with the IOC for not being tougher on doping, and asking for a meeting with International Ski Federation (FIS) President Gian Franco Kasper. That meeting – where IOC President Thomas Bach was also present – happened in February at Nordic World Championships in Lahti, Finland.
Meanwhile in Germany, athletes feel that their representation within the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) was not meaningful and in order to make their actions more powerful, they may leave the organization and form their own union.
Against this backdrop, the leadership of the IOC and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) organized a conference call earlier this month with athlete representatives from different national and international sports federations around the world.
“It was actually a very last minute thing,” Brennan, U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s cross-country athlete representative, said in an interview. “It was unclear whether that was intentional or not, but one way or the other, the U.S. Ski Team didn’t find out about the meeting until very last minute.”
In theory, the only American athletes on the call should have been athlete representatives to the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) or to international fedrations like FIS and the International Biathlon Union. (U.S. biathlete Lowell Bailey is one of that body’s representatives, and was on the call.)
But because the call was not well publicized, it turned out that the USOC representatives couldn’t participate. So Brennan did instead.
When she decided to become an athlete representative, she said, she wouldn’t have necessarily guessed that she would wind up on international conference calls with the likes of WADA Director General Olivier Niggli. Traditionally, U.S. Ski and Snowboard representatives – who come from sports as diverse as alpine skiing, freestyle skiing, and snowboarding – deal more with domestic issues.
But the doping scandal has had a huge effect on the cross-country ski community, and so she has been very engaged with the issue.
“I am the only cross-country athlete on the committee,” she said. “At each of our meetings we each give a sport-specific update, and last year a lot of my updates revolved around anti-doping because of everything that was happening. I was really excited because all the other members were super supportive and wanted to help fight for us, and work harder for clean sport. I was really encouraged by that, because a lot of those sports, I don’t think it’s really an issue for them… that was really encouraging and it made me want to do a little more on the anti-doping front.”
During the conference call, questions from the athletes to the IOC and WADA leadership just about doping took up more than an hour and a half.
The athletes made it clear that they continue to be skeptical of the IOC’s handling of the scandal. An independent investigation created by WADA presented findings in 2016 of widespread doping in Russia, including over 1,000 documents used as evidence. That investigation also did forensic testing of the glass bottles used to collect anti-doping samples, finding that some bottles belonging to Russian athletes at the 2014 Olympics had been tampered with.
The IOC convened two more commissions, headed by Denis Oswald and Samuel Schmid, to investigate the allegations further before taking disciplinary action against any athletes or against Russia as a country, for instance by barring Russian teams from competition.
“I think that was the biggest question we all still left with: Why are there two more investigations happening following the McLaren Report?” Brennan said, referring to the WADA independent investigation. “I think most athletes felt that the McLaren Report was very thorough and clear, and why there’s two more investigations happening just seems strange. I guess their answer was the McLauren Report didn’t look at all the sides well enough, and was never a report supposed to indict people. So they felt they needed to have these two follow-up investigations. But from an athlete perspective, I think that’s just a hard thing, because to me it feels like they’re dragging their feet a little bit in decisions.
“The other hard part is that Oswald is part of the IOC, so it doesn’t feel terribly independent to me,” she continued. “So I think we still all kind of left with those questions in mind.”
Brennan said that relatively little new information was presented to the athletes. Updates were given on the compliance of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA), which is still not accredited to do doping tests within Russia without oversight from another agency.
In order to be deemed compliant, WADA has said that Russia must acknowledge and apologize for the doping offenses committed in the last years, and also open a storage room in the Moscow laboratory which could contain more evidence of doping. So far, the government has refused to do either, and the storage room of the laboratory remains locked.
“A lot of people are wondering why haven’t they been able to get access, and what in that lab is useful at this point,” Brennan said. “They were pretty honest in saying that they don’t think anything is going to be in that lab. Because that lab only kept samples for three months, and it’s been much more than three months now [since the time the allegations refer to] so the chances of anything still being in there are really slim… I was happy that they were so honest about that, but it was also a bummer to hear. It just seems like another example of them dragging their feet. They keep putting this out there as a reason [that the investigation isn’t finished], when it’s not a very good reason.”
Brennan was impressed to be part of this international community – according to the IOC, 51 athlete representatives were on the call – but also saw that the level of engagement and self-confidence to demand action were not evenly distributed around the group.
“Every question that was asked was a good one,” she said. “The frustrating part was that every person that talked was either Canadian or American, except for I think one Brit had a question… it just further made clear that athletes in other countries either are choosing not to read the information, or are not getting the information, or just simply… aren’t really willing to take that stance. That’s really hard because I feel it needs to be an international effort to see some significant change. I hope that those other international athletes that were on the call at least took in that information and saw what Americans and Canadians are really pushing for, and maybe fired them up a little bit to go home and get some support going.”
That’s the kind of change that the head of Brennan’s team thinks is necessary.
“I truly believe that if the athletes get together, work with some really smart people, decide how they would like it to work, make a worldwide demand for that – they have the control,” Tiger Shaw, the CEO of U.S. Ski & Snowboard, said in an interview last week. “It is still about them. You can’t have the competitions without them. They provide the commercial value for all of these contests.”
Shaw is frustrated with lack of action on the doping issue, and also rampant conflicts of interest in sports governance more generally. While he is becoming outspoken on these issues, he said that he often encounters resistance and stonewalling from counterparts from other countries. Sport is politics.
He sees athlete leaders as having a unique ability to make demands. It is one of the reasons that the U.S. is pushing for cross-country skier Kikkan Randall, who was previously the FIS athlete representative and helped make the meeting between skiers, IOC President Bach, and FIS President Kasper happen last year, to get elected as an IOC member at the upcoming Olympics in February.
“She has a track record already of being involved in governance and caring deeply about it, even while she’s competing, which is kind of rare,” Shaw said of Randall. “It’s a more critical position than ever [to be on] the IOC. It needs someone who can help push the IOC forward in all the ways it needs to reform its governance – a strong athlete voice there is going to be critical.”
Brennan, for one, recognizes that not all athletes are comfortable being that loud voice. Some may also simply not want to deal with this not-very-uplifting topic, even within their own minds, and instead focus on training and being the best they can be in competition.
“When I go out and train, it’s like the last thing I’m thinking about, so I guess I’ve been able to compartmentalize it pretty well,” Brennan laughed. “But I do feel a little bit torn when I try to communicate this information to my teammates and other U.S. skiers. I do know that some people prefer to just not pay attention to it and just focus on their training. The challenging part for me is that I want to be respectful of how my teammates to prepare for the season, but I also want them to have the information that’s out there. So I try to include some links so they can choose whether to click on them… I think it’s just one of the skills you have to learn as an athlete is how to compartmentalize those things and not let it affect your training. When you go to race, you go to race regardless of who is there and who’s not there.”
-Gabby Naranja contributed