FIS Treads Carefully But Confidently in Latest Doping Scandal

Chelsea LittleMay 18, 2016
The women's 15 k skiathlon  cross-country at the XXII Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. (Photo: Fischer/NordicFocus)
Competitors in the women’s 15 k skiathlon crest a hill at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. (Photo: Fischer/NordicFocus)

“There needs to be an investigation by WADA,” International Ski Federation (FIS) Secretary General Sarah Lewis told FasterSkier in a phone interview on Monday. “FIS totally supports it and we have already expressed that anything we can provide, we will do. And it needs to be done [quickly], but carefully.”

With allegations published last week in The New York Times of state-sponsored doping at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, attention turned immediately to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

FIS runs its own anti-doping program, as does each country which sends skiers to the World Cup. Those programs add up to thousands of urine tests done on skiers each year. When it comes to the Olympics, however, the IOC takes over all in-competition testing and WADA provides Independent Observers to watch the process.

There had been allegations as early as November of last year, in the WADA Independent Commission report, that Russian state security personnel had infiltrated the Sochi anti-doping laboratory; WADA did not follow up on the finding.

Thus when Grigoriy Rodchenko, the former head of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory, said that 66 Russian athletes had been protected from testing positive by laboratory and security staff who swapped out their dirty urine samples, there was outrage from many sides.

Outrage – and bewilderment. Lewis was the head of the WADA Independent Observers at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China. She is intimately acquainted with the anti-doping process and the tamper-proof bottles which were allegedly opened in a secret lab and filled with replacement urine.

Sarah Lewis, secretary general of the International Ski Federation. (FIS file photo)
Sarah Lewis, secretary general of the International Ski Federation. (FIS file photo)

“Frankly, these bottles, having seen the whole thing in action, to imagine that they can be reopened– wow,” Lewis said. “The fact that they could even be taken out of the lab is really quite shocking.”

WADA has pledged, finally, to investigate winter sports and the Sochi Olympics. But should the investigations confirm the allegations, all the IOC can do is ban an athlete from the Olympics, including retroactively. With 14 Russian cross-country skiers implicated in The New York Times report, including superstar Alexander Legkov, many are wondering whether World Cup results will also be shaken up.

For instance Legkov – who won the 50 k skate in Sochi as well as helping the Russians take home silver in the men’s relay – was on the podium three more times later that season, including at World Cup finals; he then earned a number of top-ten World Cup results in the next two seasons. Are those results in jeopardy?

In the 2014/2015 season, Russian Olympians Evgeniy Belov and Maxim Vylegzhanin – who have not been implicated by name but were members of the 20-athlete team of which 14 were supposedly on the doping list – both finished in the top 10 of the overall World Cup standings. Are the many individual race results that went into those standings also in jeopardy?

Whether to negate results going forward from the date of a positive test – if such a test exists – would be a decision left to FIS, which is also shaking its head about how doping could have happened in its sport, on the world’s biggest athletic stage.

“The story has to be verified – that’s a basic principle,” Lewis said of the allegations. “If any elements of it are true, then it’s a huge throwback, a huge step back for all anti-doping efforts. Especially that this could happen at the Olympic Games where there are so many resources in terms of money, personnel, global expertise – it’s such a major blow.”

Why Weren’t Cheaters Caught?

Russia led the world in anti-doping rule violations in 2014: 148 athletes faced sanctions, 14 of which were in Winter Olympic sports and more specifically four in biathlon and seven in skiing. Despite those numbers, no star cross-country skiers were caught in the leadup to the Olympics.

Irina Starykh (far right) celebrates with the Russian team after their IBU World Cup biathlon relay victory in Ruhpolding, Germany, in January. The result is among those which will be voided with Starykh's doping ban, from a sample collected in December. (Photo: Fischer / Nordic Focus.)
Irina Starykh (far right) celebrates with her Russian teammates after they won an IBU World Cup biathlon relay in Ruhpolding, Germany, in January 2014. The result was voided as a result of Starykh’s doping ban, from a sample collected in December 2013. (Photo: Fischer / Nordic Focus.)

That is in contrast to a sport like biathlon, where the top Russian woman was disqualified before the Games began for testing positive for recombinant erythropoietin (EPO), a blood doping drug.

So could FIS have done more, and tested harder, in order to prevent the cheats from reaching the Games in the first place?

“To be honest, with what they are talking about, namely a steroid program during the Games, it’s likely that the program was very specifically targeted around the Games,” Lewis argued. “Of course you’re always looking at your processes, but with the out-of-competition program we have in place it’s very comprehensive … Nevertheless in hindsight, of course you ask those questions. Until we know what the time scale was, it’s hard to know.”

A total of 6,439 anti-doping samples were collected by various testing agencies from athletes across the skiing disciplines in 2013, a number that shrank to 5,764 in 2014, the Olympic year.

But here, too, numbers don’t tell the full story, FIS argues.

“Let us respectfully point out that this question is rather outdated,” FIS Anti-Doping Coordinator Sarah Fussek wrote in an email on Tuesday. “The WADA policy and guidance to [anti-doping agencies] many years ago was to move away from large testing numbers and move to more quality testing. For example to organise a doping control at a remote location takes much more planning efforts, logistics, transport costs as 10 tests collected at a training camp at an easy to reach place. So comparing numbers only says nothing about the quality of a testing programme.”

In fact, Lewis said that the Russian skiers had been targeted with plenty of tests. That fact was underscored in an interview over the weekend where Legkov claimed to have been tested 33 times in the season leading up to the Games.

“Our specialists are monitoring the results of the testing from a clinical perspective, but also performances, participation, history of that nation, it’s all connected together,” Lewis said. “There’s no question that there’s been extensive targeting of the Russian team for more than ten years.”

That testing did lead to a rash of positive tests and disqualifications before the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, Canada. But despite the bans, some athletes and coaches who were picked up in the sweep stayed in the sport. In one case, Russian athletes who had previously served doping bans decided not to train with the national team, and instead took up with a coach who had been barred from working with the national team because of his involvement in doping.

Rodchenkov – the head of Russian anti-doping who admitted massive fraud to the New York Times – also remained on the FIS Medical Committee until November, when he was suspended after the initial WADA Independent Commission report.

The history of Russian doping in skiing is not lost on anyone. But the biggest personality on the current scandal, Legkov, is a different case from the doping Russian skiers of six or seven years ago, at least in terms of lifestyle. He trained not only away from the standard national team coaching staff, but also primarily outside of Russia, basing himself instead in Davos, Switzerland, with non-Russian coaches in the seasons leading up to Sochi.

Legkov has said that he is considering suing the anti-doping lab whistleblower for defamation.

Additionally, Lewis had confidence in FIS’s out-of-competition testing.

“During the winter season, you have the athletes more or less with you the entire time,” she said. “It’s possible to carry out very extensive testing.”


Chain of Custody

Vitaly Stepanov, a former RUSADA employee, during an interview with 60 Minutes' Armen Keteyian, which aired Sunday, May 8. (Photo: CBS News)
Vitaly Stepanov, a former RUSADA employee, during an interview with 60 Minutes’ Armen Keteyian, which aired Sunday, May 8. (Photo: CBS News)

With the accounts of malpractice in Russian anti-doping laboratories in not only The New York Times piece but also by another whistleblower to CBS News’ 60 Minutes, there’s also a question as to whether previous anti-doping samples belonging to Russian skiers were manipulated.

Rodchenkov, for instance, said that he had destroyed over a thousand samples to prevent them from being re-tested by a different testing authority.

According to Lewis, samples collected by FIS were rarely stored in Russia.

“There was quite a lot of testing missions which were coordinated with [the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, RUSADA], but most were carried out by the FIS-appointed doping control agency with their own personnel and equipment,” she explained. “Most samples were transported to a different laboratory, in Lausanne or Cologne or somewhere else. We weren’t in the position that they could be manipulated in the Moscow laboratory.”

In addition, after RUSADA was suspended and the Moscow laboratory lost its accreditation from WADA, FIS took any samples that had been stored there immediately out of the country.

“In fact, all the samples were delivered to Cologne,” Lewis said. “They were evaluated again, all of the profiles, the blood profiles but also the steroid profile. That information was analyzed again as to whether there was the need to re-tests … They all returned negative.”

FIS anti-doping samples are handled primarily by a company called PWC, which is based in Germany and also offers services to other international and national federations.

“PWC is currently the main sample collection provider for FIS on the basis of an annual contract, but FIS uses regularly also the services from various national anti-doping agencies, and does not have an exclusive contract with PWC,” Fussek explained in her email.

The company then delivers samples to WADA-accredited laboratories around the world.

“The samples are not left overnight somewhere in a vault,” Lewis said. “Doping control officers carry out the tests and then ship or take them to the lab. That period for tampering doesn’t exist.”

Moving Forward

News broke on Tuesday that the U.S. Department of Justice would investigate the Russian doping claims. Earlier that day, the IOC announced that it directed the Lausanne laboratory where Sochi samples are stored to cooperate with WADA on potential re-testing, a move that many have urged for months.

“The statement by WADA and the IOC in terms of re-testing samples stored in Lausanne, we fully support that and have championed that cause for a long time,” Lewis said. “But that is an issue for the IOC, they are responsible for doping controls at the Olympics.

“In terms of what could be found through the re-testing, we would also support DNA testing of the urine samples in case there has been switching of urine and some errors,” she continued. “How it reads in the [Times] article is that they have used those athletes’ own urine, but nevertheless the experts are able to assess if there has been a change in terms of the composition of the samples. Plasticides were mentioned and that sort of thing.”

FIS already worked with the Russians to ensure that testing was carried out in the 2015/2016 season, even after RUSADA and the Moscow laboratory lost a say in the process.

“On the request of the Russian ski association, they asked FIS to step in and arrange in-competition testing,” Lewis said. “They didn’t have RUSADA to do it. We did that through the group appointed to help them, which was UK Antidoping. There was some additional blood testing carried out by the FIS agency during competitions during the season.”

That said, the testing arranged by UK Antidoping over the last six months was not exactly a roaring success.

Forty percent of the tests the agency was prescribed to carry out were unsuccessful, with one test being flat-out refused by an athlete. Of the tests which were collected, 49 were positive. UK Antidoping is reportedly considering ending its role in Russia altogether.

Nevertheless, Lewis asserted that athletes who competed in 2015/2016 should not worry that they were facing an unfair playing field.

“Anti-Doping holds a very high priority in our organization,” she said. “We have a strong commitment to clean sport. There’s no question that we’re horrified by these stories and absolutely support this investigation to clarify that situation. But when it comes to the statements of how the manipulation was done, in terms of exchanging samples and tampering with the bottles, those things can’t happen with the testing which is carried out by the FIS-appointed agency.”

For FIS, internal discussions are ongoing and the organization’s top brass has already set aside time at their biennial Congress in the second week of June.

“To be perfectly honest, the situation was and is on the agenda based on the WADA report on November,” Lewis said. “The situation with the Russians is on the agenda of the FIS Council already, and then obviously there is more information to be able to discuss and address.”

Correction: The author previously quoted Lewis as saying that she had “dropped a note through to Alex.” She was referring to Fasterskier’s Alex Kochon, not Alexander Legkov. We apologize to Lewis and to readers for this misunderstanding. 

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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