After more than a half dozen doping cases among Russian skiers in the last two years, the International Ski Federation (FIS) will consider sanctions against the country at its upcoming meetings in Turkey next week.
Under FIS rules, Russia’s athletes and coaches could be banned from participating in races, events scheduled in the country could be cancelled, or its officials could be stripped of voting rights at future meetings.
In an e-mail to FasterSkier, FIS Secretary General Sarah Lewis confirmed that a “full report in regard to the situation with doping cases involving Russian athletes” is on the agenda in Turkey.
Sanctions can be levied against a country if four or more of its athletes are caught doping within a 12-month period—which is the case for the Russian team. Natalia Matveeva, Eugeni Dementiev, Julia Tchepalova, and Nina Rysina all tested positive for the blood-boosting drug EPO in the winter of 2008-2009, although reports of the latter three cases did not emerge until last summer.
FIS did hold Council meetings in the fall of 2009, after the news of all four positive tests had emerged, but did not address the issue. In the lead-up to the Olympics, the Russians began drawing more scrutiny, and when another doping case arose in January, FIS President Gian-Franco Kasper released a statement saying that the issue would be taken up in Turkey.
Without pointing fingers at any particular nation, a number of athletes and coaches have alleged that some teams operate systematic doping programs, in which coaches or doctors administer all of their athletes with the same illegal products or techniques.
In an interview with FasterSkier at the Olympic Games in February, Rasmus Damsgaard, who runs the drug-testing program for FIS, said that he had not seen evidence of doping programs within full teams.
But Damsgaard did say that among some of the former Eastern Bloc countries, he had observed “clusters” of athletes with suspicious test results.
“I’m not aware of the distribution of new and old coaches, doctors,” he said. “But there are groups of skiers that are consistently having fluctuations that are closing up on sanctions…identical fluctuations.”
And on Tuesday, Damsgaard said that while FIS’s testing has tailed off after the Games, he stood by his remarks.
“This is definitely still a concern to me,” he said.
In an e-mail, Luke Bodensteiner, who will attend the Council meetings as a representative of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, said he would not speculate whether FIS would go through with imposing sanctions on the Russians.
In 2006, when the last significant doping scandal occurred, with the Austrian team at the Olympic Games, Bodensteiner said that “FIS was well coordinated with IOC [the International Olympic Committee] to determine and implement sanctions on a number of different levels.”
That case saw Austria’s head coach, Emil Hoch, slapped with a lifetime ban from FIS competitions (though that was later reduced to 15 years), while the IOC levied a $1 million fine against the country’s national ski federation.
But in this case, Bodensteiner said, Russia has already made some of its own changes, like bringing in new leadership for its Olympic Committee—which may make the Council less inclined to impose penalties. Alexander Zhukov, the new president, has said that old assumptions about doping should be eradicated “with scorching steel.”
And while the country certainly has had no shortage of doping cases over the past two years, it did recently create its own independent agency, Rusada, to perform testing.
“The new leadership has spoken clearly and publicly about the critical nature of anti-doping,” Bodensteiner said. “This is an important first step that was missing in 2006, and a cultural change that is certainly welcomed by many.”
But Kris Freeman, a top American skier, said that he would not be satisfied unless officials from the Russian ski team were forced out.
“I don’t blame the athletes so much as their staff,” he said. “The coaches and the whole administration seem to believe that doping is a part of the sport.”
While the coaches need to go, Freeman added, Russian athletes should be prohibited from racing before a new system is in place.
“Until they get those coaches out of there,” he said, “they have no right to be in a World Cup.”
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.