When asked by FasterSkier at Monday’s Geneva press conference whether the worst fears of those in the nordic sports community – namely that Russia has had an organized doping program off and on for many years – were true, World Anti-Doping Agency Independent Commission Chair Richard Pound hedged.
“Certainly the two sports you mentioned are known to have had a lot of doping problems, and probably not just Russia,” he said.
(You can read the background on that press conference, and its implications for winter sports, here. The topic was largely centered on Russian track and field.)
To ask those in the cross-country ski and biathlon communities, that statement is both true and false. Both the International Ski Federation (FIS) and the International Biathlon Union (IBU) touted the successes they have had in fighting doping from Russia and beyond, but also welcomed more information, investigation, and re-testing of old samples.
They also weighed in on the serious finding that the Russian state security apparatus, FSB, was present in the anti-doping laboratory at the 2014 Olympics. That finding has the potential to undermine the results from the Games, although the panel did not find direct evidence that agents had manipulated samples.
“I have to say I’m a little disappointed that in the context of this investigation, [Pound] would name FIS and biathlon as having severe doping problems,” said Dr. Jim Carrabre, a Minneapolis-based family doctor who is the IBU’s Vice President for Medical Issues.
“Is there evidence of that in what he uncovered, that we were implicit in this problem?” he asked. “If there wasn’t, then he shouldn’t have even mentioned it. On this stage and this scale of deception and criminal acts, I don’t think it’s appropriate to include us in the same sentence. I think we deserve more respect than that.”
Apparently speaking off the cuff, Pound did make comments that neglected specific aspects of his anti-doping program.
For instance, take this one.
“The only organization I know that actually keeps samples for a long-term basis is the [International Olympic Committee],” Pound said in response to a member of the press. “Most other testing agencies, if it’s not a positive test, a sample is kept for a number of months and then routinely destroyed.”
The IBU actually did have such a program, anticipating the update to the WADA Code which went into effect on January 1, 2015.
Carrabre and his team kept samples that had suspicious profiles, but which weren’t positive, from the two years leading up to this change. Then they re-tested them with the new methods.
That effort led to several new positives. Some were from athletes who had already been banned from other samples, but it also led to the bans of Sergui Sednev of Ukraine and Alexander Loginov of Russia, a former Junior World Champion who competed at the 2014 Olympics.
The IBU also suspended three athletes in the leadup to the 2014 Olympics, including two Russians: Irina Starykh, who was the team’s top female athlete at the time, and Katerina Iourieva.
“I don’t know if there were any other federations which suspended athletes just prior to Sochi,” Carrabre said. “I think that we were the only ones that did that.”
So does that mean that biathlon has a serious doping problem?
“It’s a glass half full or half empty kind of thing: do you have a problem because you catch them?” he asked. “Or do you have a problem because you’re not catching anyone?”
Likewise, FIS Secretary General Sarah Lewis touted her organization’s dealings with Russian doping in an email to FasterSkier.
“In 2010 FIS sanctioned the Russian Ski Association following an investigation due to the high number of Russian doping cases,” she wrote. “A series of measures were implemented by FIS and the Russian Ski Association through enforcement of a compliant anti-doping programme. The Association was required to provide a detailed report on their activities and actions it had undertaken to address the doping problems in a meaningful way. These included a significant number of changes such as changing cross-country ski team and other officials.”
One of the notable things in the WADA Independent Commission report is that track and field’s governing body, the IAAF, did not sanction Russia (they are now considering doing so). That is a radical difference to how FIS handled their own situation.
… But Help Wanted
Both federations however made it clear that if the type of behavior found in the track and field investigation was widespread across all sports within Russia, their carefully-designed anti-doping programs would lose some key components.
“Where biathlon and nordic skiing have troubled histories in terms of doping in Russia, I want to believe that we caught the athletes who were doing it,” said Max Cobb, the President and CEO of the U.S. Biathlon Association and the chair of the IBU’s Technical Committee.
“I really want to believe that,” he continued. “But I think you can’t look at a case like this and say, we don’t need to investigate further in our sport. I think this is a watershed moment in sport. All of us who are working in sport need to seize the moment to dig deeper into this and respect the work that WADA has done to expose this ,and see where else the evidence leads. Does it lead to more cases in our sport? I hope not, but it’s on us to find out.”
That said, FIS and the IBU had policies in place to minimize the amount of damage corruption at RUSADA could have caused.
“The samples of the Russian cross-country skiing athletes are collected by the FIS-appointed agency directly,” Lewis wrote, explaining that the disgraced RUSADA agency did not have responsibility. “Consequently we can be sure there was no-notice for the testing missions, no pre-screening of samples that have been shipped out of the country, and we are not specifically aware of manipulation of whereabouts reporting (but can also not exclude for cases where FIS has not planned a testing mission).”
“A number of samples are sent to the Moscow lab (mainly those for purposes of the ABP due to the limited possible transport time for arrival at the laboratory according to WADA Guidelines) but a large amount are taken to a different WADA-accredited lab outside of Russia,” Lewis continued. “There were challenges to be able to ship the samples out of the country in the past, but we have always succeeded to do so. Samples in Russia are not only being collected in the Moscow region, but also from other areas in Russia where the athletes are living and training, which is certainly time- and cost-intensive, but FIS has allocated a significant amount of its anti-doping budget for this testing strategy since many years.”
Furthermore, while the narrative of the WADA report is that athletes were doped and protected in Russia so that they would never test positive outside the country, Carrabre pointed out that all of the Russian doping cases he has seen have been detected based on samples taken outside of Russia.
“There’s obviously still doping outside of the country, because we caught them!” he said of the biathlon program.
And yet – he has had trouble catching athletes inside Russia, suggesting that there may very well be deception and collusion going on inside the country.
“RUSADA has reported some positive EPO tests on very low-level athletes who competed at national championships, maybe to make a smoke screen for the other ones they may be hiding,” he said.
Both FIS and the IBU use an Athlete Biological Passport program, and Carrabre was particularly anxious to know whether hidden or manipulated tests taken by RUSADA belonged to biathletes for this reason.
“But I would hope that in the WADA database if they have reports on positive tests by athletes that we are not aware of, that they would share that with us,” he said. “Because that would be useful information for us.”
For instance, the Report stated that “significant percentages of [Doping Control Forms] in Russia are either not entered into ADAMS or are significantly delayed,” referencing WADA’s global database tool which stores and manages anti-doping test information. In particular, one whistleblower said gave the number of her sample to an official who hid it at the RUSADA laboratory, and this positive test was never entered into ADAMS.
The Independent Commission noted that in many cases, even when information was entered in ADAMS, there was a significant delay first.
WADA had not directly contacted him or the IBU, Carrabre said.
While much of the report focused on track and field athletes, one finding did shine a light on winter sports. The Independent Commission revealed that the FSB had infiltrated the anti-doping lab in Sochi.
From the report:
‘Specifically, Moscow laboratory personnel have reported, under confidentiality, regarding the continued presence of the Russian security (FSB), “[L]ast time in Sochi, we had some guys pretending to be engineers in the lab but actually they were from the federal security service, let’s call it the new KGB; FSB.” ‘
This is similar to the atmosphere in the Moscow anti-doping laboratory:
“One laboratory staff member provided information to IC investigators about the suspected bugging or wiretapping of telephones, while another staff member reported that office spaces within the Moscow laboratory were monitored (bugged) by the FSB in order to be informed of the laboratory’s reported statements demonstrate the perceptions of laboratory officials, who believe they are under constant state surveillance.”
Everyone involved seemed puzzled by the allegations of FSB presence in Sochi.
“My first reaction is that what Dick Pound said sounds pretty good to me: I can’t imagine what the state’s interest in urine samples was,” said Cobb.
Cobb was the IBU’s Technical Delegate overseeing the Sochi competitions, meaning that he was intimately involved with the Games but that anti-doping was far outside his direct responsibility.
“It’s disturbing to have any outside influence present in something as sensitive as anti-doping at the Olympic Games,” he said.
“It totally surprises me,” Carrabre said. “Really, frankly, I’m a little shocked to hear that… they would have to have had been granted access through IOC to do so. WADA had an Independent Observers group there who were aware of all the people in the laboratory. So it would be interesting to hear from them.”
The findings clearly had both the IBU and FIS rattled. Both sports did have positive tests at the Games: German biathlete Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle tested positive for a banned stimulant, and Austrian cross-country skier Johannes Dürr was found to be using the blood-doping drug recombinant erythropoietin at home in Austria in between long-distance races.
But were there actually more positive tests, which never saw the light of day?
“I would think that if there was mishandling of results before Sochi, then there would be no reason to think it wouldn’t continue during the Games,” Carrabre said.
“In regard to samples from Sochi 2014, these are in custody of the IOC,” Lewis wrote. “FIS would certainly support the IOC if it decides to re-test any of these – as has been the case in the past – at any other WADA accredited laboratory.”
The findings in the WADA Independent Commission report definitely have implications for skiing and biathlon. It’s even possible that the findings will lead to further action which may eventually lead to changes in the results sheets.
But a separate aspect of the track and field investigation, and what made it so horrific and allowed the behavior to continue for so long, was collusion by the IAAF, in the person of President Lamine Diack. Diack is under investigation in France for taking bribes to hide doping.
“I’m disappointed too because the people I know in IAAF are good doctors,” Carrabre said. “They are working hard to keep this sport clean. I think the image there, now, is that everybody is trying to manipulate sport. But the people who are working hard to keep that sport clean have also been deceived.”
And likewise, although there may be dopers – Russian or otherwise – in their sports, FIS and the IBU do not want to be categorized alongside the IAAF and its criminal president.
“We can’t keep people from doping,” Carrabre said. “Just like if you have a store you can’t stop people from shoplifting. But you can catch them. I think we’ve done a reasonably good job of doing that.”
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.