BiathlonGeneralNewsOlympicsRacingWorld CupWADA Independent Commission Strongly Implies Winter Sports at Risk From Doping

Avatar Chelsea LittleNovember 9, 2015
The WADA Independent Commission
The WADA Independent Commission (l-r) Richard McLaren, Dick Pound, and Gunter Younger wait to discuss their findings as WADA’s Ben Nichols mediates questions from the ravenous press.

GENEVA —“It’s pretty disturbing,” former president of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Richard Pound said in a press conference in Switzerland this afternoon about a special investigation into systematic doping in Russia.

“We are not dealing with a he-said-she-said, we actually had documents and recordings,” he continued. “It’s disappointing to see the nature and the extent of what was going on, and to reach the conclusion that it could not possibly have happened without everybody knowing about it and consenting to it. It’s worse than we thought.”

And then, after confirming that he would call this an instance of “state-sponsored” doping, the head of the Independent Commission said this:

“Tip of the iceberg? I’m afraid you’re right. We don’t think that Russia is the only country with a doping problem, or that athletics [track and field] is the only sport with a doping problem.”

The investigation was spurred by a documentary made by German filmmaker Hajo Seppelt, in which he talked to former Russian athletes and heard tales of doping, cover-ups, and extorting money from athletes who tested positive in order to allow them to continue competing.

(An English transcript of the documentary can be found here.)

In August Seppelt later partnered with the Sunday Times to further his investigation, finding a document with blood test results for 12,000 tests administered over a 10-year period leading up to the 2012 Olympics.

Hundreds of these tests showed abnormal blood profiles that suggested, but did not prove, doping by Russians but also other athletes. This led to the assertion that the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the international governing body for track and field, did not do enough to protect clean athletes.

Pound congratulated Seppelt and ARD on their “fine piece of investigative journalism,” saying that it not only sparked the investigation but made their job much easier.

“The commission also wants to congratulates the individuals who were courageous enough to be whistleblowers in this matter, despite knowing that the outcomes are often attacks on their character,” he added.

The Independent Commission, made up of Pound along with longtime sports arbitrator Richard McLaren and Gunter Younger, the head of the Department Cybercrime with Bavarian Landeskriminalamt in Germany, found widespread corruption in Russian track and field. Most allegations from the documentaries were upheld.

While Pound said that “the athletes have always been the ones who get caught,” he shifted much of the blame for the doping to coaches and ministry officials.

He revealed that the Independent Commission had found multiple ways that that Russian officials shielded its athletes – whom they were encouraging to dope – from getting caught.

Many were tested in a Moscow laboratory before leaving the country for competitions, and not allowed to compete unless they first tested clean.

“We had reports of athletes in London going back to Moscow to be tested, and then came back to London when it was clear,” he said of the 2012 Olympics. “That has been a feature starting in the old Soviet days, which is that they never tested positive in competition. What you have to watch for is purported injuries, purported illnesses, which may not be the real reason that an athlete is not competing.”

The implication here is that many results sheets included athletes who had been using banned substances during training, even if they could not use them at actual competitions.

In other cases, coaches lied about whether athletes were present when doping control officers came to test.

Over 1,400 samples at a Moscow laboratory were also destroyed once WADA made it clear they were coming to check the laboratory. No believable explanation was ever given for this occurrence, after WADA had explicitly requested that the samples be kept.

“We came to a dead end, but we wanted everybody to know that we weren’t entirely satisfied with the explanation we got,” Pound said.

This was one of just several instances where what the commission, originally convened to investigate doping in Russian track and field, found information that implicated other sports as well.

“It likely was spread across many sports, not just athletics,” Pound said.

This occurred in December 2014, meaning that samples were likely taken from winter sports athletes in the run-up to and beginning of the 2014/2015 competition season.

Furthermore, the commission found that Russian security service FSB was present in the laboratory which tested samples at the 2014 Olympics held in Sochi, Russia.

“The Moscow laboratory is not operationally independent from RUSADA or the Ministry of Sport,” the Commission wrote in its full report, which is available online. “Its impartiality, judgment and integrity were compromised by the surveillance of the FSB within the laboratory during the Sochi Winter Olympic Games.”

So does that mean that the results of Sochi might not stand?

“I don’t think we can be confident that there was no manipulation done there,” Pound said. “But we don’t have any hard evidence that there was. We simply know that they were there. It’s hard to know what the Russian state’s interest in athletes’ urine would be.”

Asked by FasterSkier specifically about cross-country skiing and biathlon, two winter endurance sports where Russians have had positive tests in the last decade at a much greater rate than other countries, he said suspicions were well-founded.

“Certainly the two sports you mentioned are known to have had a lot of doping problems, and probably not just Russia,” he said.

There is the possibility for WADA to investigate more broadly, either on other Russian teams or other sports in general. But Pound made clear that he was not interested in leading such an effort.

“I hope that some other independent commission will do that!” he laughed, and McLaren and Younger also smiled at this, clearly tired from a massive amount of work done in a relatively short amount of time. “We feel we have kind of done our job for the moment.”

The commission concluded with a list of recommendations for various sanctions. Some were for direct sanctions or further investigation of a number of athletes and staff in Russian track and field.

Another obvious suggestion was to withdraw the accreditation of the Moscow laboratory.

“We found very few analytical errors coming out of the Moscow labs … in terms of straight faulty analysis, aside from one test this summer where the A and B didn’t match, I don’t think we found that,” Pound said. “The problem was people hiding samples or altering them or losing them or substituting them, in return for cash. The people broke down.”

The commission also suggested that Russia’s athletics federation and its anti-doping agency, RUSADA, be found noncompliant with the WADA Code. That could keep Russian runners, throwers, and racewalkers from competing at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, next year.

Should the Russians come into compliance, Pound suggested that they may be able to compete in Rio. But they would have to start cleaning house soon.

“If they do the surgery, do the therapy, I hope they can get there and compete,” he said. “The idea is not to exclude people from the Olympics if you can possibly avoid that. … But sometimes, that’s the price you pay for it.”

When some in the audience balked at the possibility that Russia could compete at the Olympics just a year after such a major scandal, saying that a penalty should be more severe, Pound emphasized that positive encouragement may be key to helping Russia clean up.

Yet he was also aware that the carrot had to be accompanied by a stick, so to speak.

“If they do the surgery, do the therapy, I hope they can get there and compete.” — Dick Pound, former president of the World Anti-Doping Agency, who chaired an independent commission to investigate systematic-doping allegations in Russia

“I do think that we have been a little diffident in using our muscle,” he said of WADA. “We have spent most of our time trying to persuade people to become Code compliant… but if you haven’t become Code compliant [the last 17 years], that tells me that you’re not trying very hard…. I think that those decisions should be taken away from the political table and be put in the hands of a compliance committee which will report whether there is in fact compliance or not. At that point it’s very hard for the political bodies not to act.”

Separately, the commission suggested suspension of the Russian athletics federation by the IAAF.

The group found evidence that the IAAF had been complicit in covering up Russian doping, but did not comment much on that today. They had passed evidence first to Interpol, and then to authorities in France, to possibly begin criminal proceedings. Once the relevant criminal investigations are concluded, Pound said that the commission would happily discuss that aspect of their findings.

Importantly, since the alleged criminal activity took place – in which Lamine Diack, the former head of IAAF, is purported to have taken bribes – a new leader has taken control of the organization.

But Lord Sebastian Coe, a Brit who now heads the group, has not been particularly sympathetic in responding to the allegations so far.

In August, Coe called the German documentary and the articles in the Sunday Times a “declaration of war on my sport — there is nothing in our history of competence and integrity in drug testing that warrants this kind of attack.”

That seems naïve in light of the commission’s findings. So will any of their recommendations come to pass? Pound stressed that the Independent commission was just that independent. WADA itself had not seen or influenced the report before Thursday, and the commission has no power over what the IAAF does or does not decide to do.

But there is evidence that the IAAF may be capitulating. During the press conference, it was also reported that the IAAF would at least consider sanctioning Russia.

As for WADA, the executive board has a meeting coming up in Colorado Springs. It remains to be seen what they can, and will, do to combat the Russian problem given the tools they have at their disposal.

“While the contents of the Report are deeply disturbing, the investigation is hugely positive for the clean athlete as it contains significant recommendations for how WADA and its partners in the anti-doping community can, and must, take swift corrective action to ensure anti-doping programs of the highest order are in place across the board,” Craig Reedie, the current WADA president, said in a press release after the conference. “WADA is fully committed in its role of leading the charge to protect the rights of clean athletes worldwide.”

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Chelsea Little

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.

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