After a sensational German documentary aired last week alleging widespread state-sponsored doping in Russia, as well as elaborate and financially shady cover-ups, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) released careful statements expressing their dismay for the situation. It initially seemed like the allegations would be investigated only by Russia’s internal anti-doping agency, RUSADA, and by the International Association of Athletics Associations (most of the athletes named in the documentary were track and field stars).
After intense pressure, WADA announced today that they will launch their own full and independent investigation, which will proceed regardless of the pace or scope of IAAF or RUSADA work.
“WADA is the independent anti-doping agency tasked with the mandate of ensuring that the clean athlete is supported in every sport and in every country,” WADA President Sir Craig Reedie said in a press release. “The allegations that have been raised in the German television programs require close scrutiny to determine what actions are required to be taken by WADA and others, to confirm the evidence, seek further evidence, and pursue any anti-doping rule violations or breaches of the International Standards that have allegedly taken place. WADA must ensure that all athletes who have cheated, either at national or international level, are dealt with in an appropriate fashion under the World Anti-Doping Code.”
An English-language transcript of the documentary has been released, which reveals that the systematic doping occurred in far more sports than track and field: cross-country skiing and biathlon were specifically named. A second documentary, so far not translated to English, has implicated additional athletes from other countries. This comes at the same time as a massive cache of documents pertaining to the case of infamous Italian doping doctor Michele Ferrari is being released, including wire taps between Ferrari and David Taschler, a biathlete who is the son of the International Biathlon Union’s Vice President for Sport, Gottlieb Taschler.
North American biathletes and staff have also weighed in on the doping allegations. Kikkan Randall, the U.S. cross-country skier who serves as the athlete representative to the International Ski Federation (FIS), did not respond to a request for comment.
The documentary, made by Hajo Seppelt, aired last week on German channel ARD, but an English-language transcript was only recently made available by WDR. You can read it here.
While we covered some of the most glaring and commonly-discussed messages from the documentary when it came out, the transcript offers more details that are particularly interesting to nordic sports. It also provides a clear picture of the professionality Seppelt brought to his work. The German did not appear to cut corners; he displays videos and plays cell phone recordings in the documentary (which you can watch here) to prove his points. When a source secretly filmed her coach handing her a packet of anabolic steroids, Seppelt had the pills tested at the Cologne, Germany, anti-doping lab and confirmed that they were, in fact, Oxandrolone.
He also sent an employee to investigate just how easy it is to obtain recombinant erythropoetin (EPO, a common blood-doping drug) in Russia. Here’s an excerpt from the transcript:
3,925 rubles is about $40 dollars.
While all of Seppelt’s sources come from the world of track and field, they know that doping is more widespread than simply their own sport. Vitaliy Stepanov, who formerly worked in an anti-doping laboratory in Russia and was dismayed and disillusioned by what he saw there, listed these as the sports that are protected, in that they are not tested or positive tests are covered up: “Swimming, Cycling, Biathlon, Athletics, Weight Lifting, Nordic Skiing.”
Besides a much-discussed story in which marathon champion Lyliya Shobukhova, who paid her own federation bribe money in order to suppress a positive test and compete in the 2012 Olympics. Seppelt details the manner in which the financial transaction — worth $600,000 at one point — was carried out using a shell company based at a random address in Singapore.
The question that viewers might be left with is, why haven’t we heard anything about all of this earlier, if it’s so extensive? The documentary gets to that, too. Here’s another excerpt:
After days of tense speculation and inside discussion, there is a sense of relief that WADA itself will be tackling the allegations, instead of leaving it to another organization.
“I am really glad to see that WADA is undertaking a full investigation into all the very serious allegations made in the ARD documentary on systematic doping and corruption within the anti-doping effort,” U.S. Biathlon Association President & CEO Max Cobb told FasterSkier. “Biathlon is mentioned in the documentary and less than a month ago IBU suspended another top level athlete for doping. This may be a watershed moment for clean-sport. WADA is wise to launch a full and independent investigation.
He’s referring to Alexander Loginov, who was busted for using EPO in November when the IBU used a new method to test stored samples from the previous season. At the time, news outlets including this site heralded the development as a smart move. While the new method has not been revealed, it could possibly be the use of “transcriptomics” to test for a signature of changing gene expression in response to EPO, rather than to EPO itself. In development for years, such a test has been hailed as “perfect” because there is no way to hide this biological signature once you have doped.
Among the allegations in the documentary, however, is that Russian athletes are advised to take urine samples when they are not doping, freeze them, and use them to cover their tracks if they are tested and know they will fail. Seppelt also reports that samples are checked before athletes ever leave the country, so that athletes who might test positive at major events never have the chance.
All of this reveals a more sophisticate state-level doping system than had been imagined, and means that even the perfect test might not be able to catch Russian dopers.
When asked about the documentary, U.S. biathlete Lowell Bailey, one of four athlete representatives to the IBU, said that he needed more information before reaching any conclusions. (FasterSkier reached him this weekend at the World Cup in Östersund, Sweden, before the English transcript was released.)
“The most I can say is that I don’t know any of the sources that were cited,” Bailey said. “I don’t know any of the people who were interviewed or how they went about doing it. So I really can’t comment on anything that the documentary involves… Honestly, what we’re focusing on from day to day is what training sessions are like and how we can improve. A lot of this stuff is going on outside of the World Cup. These allegations, I guess you could say, are yet to be confirmed by any reputable source like WADA or the IOC.”
That may be true, Seppelt has been a prescient commentator before. He broke the story of doping in Kenyan distance running back in 2012. Two years later, three-time Boston Marathon winner Rita Jeptoo failed a test for EPO, unleashing a firestorm in the athletics world.
While Bailey couldn’t comment on the documentary, he did weigh on an the suspension dealt to Loginov. In Kontiolahti, Finland, last season, Bailey finished third in a World Cup sprint. Loginov was second.
“For sure, it made me angry that I have worked my whole life to climb up onto that podium, and the guy who is standing there next to me was cheating the whole time,” he said.
Canada’s Nathan Smith place eighth in the same race.
“One of my best races last year, he [Loginov] was on the podium so I guess he robbed me of his spot, right?” Smith asked retorically, reached on Sunday in Östersund. “I would’ve been seventh instead of eighth. But, I don’t know, I mean, you can’t ignore the facts, Russia has so many cases that they still have problems.”
Bailey says that he fully expects to have his result from the race amended to second place. He will also rise in the rankings of last season’s World Cup total score.
But he didn’t get to enjoy second place in the moment.
Still, Smith says, the sport seems to be cleaner than when he first showed up on the World Cup circuit.
“I remember [Maxim] Tchoudov was just blowing everyone out of the water,” Smith said. “I think he was a minute faster than the next guy and in the relay it was like I was standing still. Obviously I’m a lot stronger now, but I think back then, we wouldn’t have even been able to compete with that. He never got caught for anything, but it was definitely questionable, and now I think the Russians in general are a lot more human.”
With Loginov’s test, both Smith and Bailey feel there is evidence that they system is working.
“You can see that in the results,” Smith said. “They don’t have tons of good guys in the top 10, they’ve got like one guy. I think it’s realistic that for the most part their team is probably clean, but I’m not really sure. Definitely with the more stringent testing, you can tell countries like U.S. and Canada, we’re definitely more competitive now. I’d say we have a chance, so it definitely helps our countries, that’s for sure.”
For Bailey, it’s just not worth wasting a lot of time, anger and energy worrying about Russian doping. He has to trust in the system, he explained, and focus on what he can do to be the best – not whether more former competitors might retroactively get disqualified.
“I really focus on what we can control, for ourselves,” Bailey said. “I’m lucky that in the United States we have basically the best team that you can ask for, and every resource that you would need in order to do the best training … I talk with a lot of the athletes on a daily basis, so I can kind of get a feel for what people are thinking. I think at this point, the athletes place a lot of trust in the antidoping agencies and the testing protocol that the IBU has put in place and WADA has put in place, and the various national-testing pools. You have to place your faith in those organizations, and really hope and believe that they are doing their utmost to stay ahead of the dopers. And the rest is just, the day to day preparation for training and racing on the World Cup.”
—Alex Kochon contributed reporting
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.