When Russian biathlete Alexander Loginov was provisionally suspended last week after a year-old sample tested positive for the blood-doping drug recombinant erythropoietin (EPO) using a new method, many weren’t surprised.
The question was, why does this keep happening to Russia? One interesting commentary by Evgeniy Slyusarenko of the Russian sports website Championat explained that in Western Europe and North America, the responsibility for performance lies on the athlete, who must make decisions for themselves and accept the consequences. On the other hand, in Russia, athletes are expected to follow orders – in fact, everyone is expected to follow the orders from their higher-ups. And it is not the bosses who get fired when there are doping scandals. The bosses only get fired when there are no Olympic medals.
A new documentary aired on German broadcaster ARD last night alleges that though the roots of the Russian doping problem are just as Slyusarenko described, it goes much deeper. Noted journalist and documentarian Hajo Seppelt found evidence of not only state-sponsored doping, but routine cover-up procedures in place to avoid scandals involving high-profile athletes. Unknown and up-and-coming athletes were not so lucky, and were discarded by the system after a positive test.
You can find the hour-long documentary here, if you have VPN or a location-unblocker, and if you understand German.
Seppelt was compelled to investigate Russian doping after the 2014 Olympics, in part after it was revealed that Russian cross-country skiers were using xenon gas as a performance-enhancing measure.
“I wanted to report to a much greater degree on doping in Russia,” Seppelt told ARD in an interview. “Research in March. I could not expect at the time that the story would evolve like this. We must assume that in Russia a state-supported doping system exists with a big cover-up machine that pulls the strings in the background.”
Many of the central messages in the documentary come via a pair of whistleblowers who contacted Seppelt: 800-meter runner Yuliya (Rusanova) Stepanova, and her husband Vitaliy Stepanov, who used to work for the Russian anti-doping agency RUSADA.
The pair claim that not only would officials cover up positive tests by star athletes, for instance by “making a mistake” in the labwork to justify throwing out the results, but that athletes were also told to keep “clean” urine samples in their freezers to use for doping tests.
The documentary also shows a video clip recorded on a cell phone, in which London 2012 800 meter gold medalist Mariya Savinova admits to using oxandrolone, a prohibited anabolic steroid.
Several other athletes went on the record about not only doping and the availability of illicit performance-enhancing drugs, but also shady financial practices used by Russian federations, sometimes through shell companies.
Some of the allegations have also been reported on by other journalists. For instance, it was French newspaper L’Equipe which initially wrote that Russian marathon champion Liliya Shobukhova had paid her own federation a bribe to avoid a doping ban. After paying, she raced in the 2012 Olympic marathon – but when she failed to finish, the federation banned her after all.
Multiple Russian sports and anti-doping officials have categorically denied the claims.
“You should be very careful about putting too much faith into these athletes’ claims,” the head of Moscow’s doping control lab, Grigory Rodchenkov, said according to The Guardian. “These people are experiencing the biggest catastrophe of their lives.”
“I did not think that there was still any system, in 2014, which has so many parallels to what was formerly done in East Germany,” he said in his ARD interview. “All this is topped by the capitalist characteristics of a commercialized elite sport system that is the status quo in Russia.”
And as for why no Russian athletes tested positive in Sochi? That’s no accident, he concludes.
“The facade has little to do with the reality of the thing,” he said. “In our film, you will see that both the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, the Doping Control Laboratory in Moscow, and sporting organizations operate what is obviously a system for the protection of national interests and the cover-up of doping to a significant extent… in my view it’s just window dressing.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.