In response to evidence of widespread doping in Russia, the Czech Biathlon Union became the first to discuss a boycott. The Czechs will not attend a World Cup stage to be held in Tyumen, Russia, in March; they have been joined by the British Biathlon Union. Several other countries say they hope that the International Biathlon Union will move the event.
But the Russian Biathlon Union put out a defiant press release denying any involvement in doping.
A Boycott Grows
At the past weekend’s World Cups in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, the federation announced their intent to skip Russian World Cup competitions. The move comes in response to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) investigation led by Richard McLaren. His team found that more than 30 Russian biathletes had been involved in doping. And across sports, cheating and collusion were systematic.
“It was about time that some federation came and said out loud what we are talking about behind the scenes,” Czech Biathlon Union President Jiří Hamza said in an interview with the news agency iDNES, according to a translation.
The International Biathlon Union (IBU) is being pushed to move the competitions. The dozens of doping biathletes are only part of the equation. Perhaps a bigger issue is that extensive sample manipulation and collusion occurred on Russian soil. That makes some athletes and federations reluctant to compete in Russia.
“I don’t think anybody feels safe about being there, in a country that had this high level of collusion,” U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association President and CEO Tiger Shaw told FasterSkier the day the report came out.
A few months ago, the IBU also controversially voted to award 2021 World Championships to Tyumen. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had directed that no new competitions should be scheduled in Russia; the IBU interpreted the directive to say that the existing Tyumen bid could remain up for election.
2016 Youth and Junior World Championships, slated for Ostrov, Russia, are also part of the discussion.
If the competitions are not moved, Czech athletes will not attend them, Hamza said.
Also signing on to the boycott is the British Biathlon Union (BBU).
“The Board of the BBU made a unanimous decision over the weekend to boycott World Cup 8 in Tyumen,” BBU Secretary General Mark Goodson wrote in an email to FasterSkier.
Momentum may be building for other federations to sign on as well. A widespread boycott could push the IBU Executive Board to move the event. A similar boycott led to 2016 World Championships for bobsleigh and skeleton being stripped from Sochi, Russia.
The IBU Executive Board is meeting to discuss the McLaren report this week.
“Early this morning Tuesday, we received an Email of thanks from [Czech biathlon] and in mid-morning the Czech Republic issued an ‘Open Letter’ to the IBU and all Federations expressing even more displeasure than we had, and boycotting all events in Russia until WADA and the IOC gave their Anti-Doping Systems a clean bill of health,” Goodson wrote. “The latest news is mid-afternoon with a very supportive (of Czech) Open Letter from Norway demanding that named, proven Russian biathletes be banned with immediate effect, and that the IBU withdraw all competitions from Russia until a clean bill of health. Failure of IBU to do this will result in Norway considering a boycott of all international competitions in Russia.”
North American federations are considering their options.
“We have been discussing the issue and will make a decision Friday after the IBU makes its ruling,” Biathlon Canada High Performance Director Eric De Nys told FasterSkier. “We are of course hoping that the IBU makes the right call and pulls the World Cup from Tyumen.”
The United States is leaving the decision up to individual athletes.
“We have told our athletes that participation is up to them and that there will be no pressure for them one way or the other,” U.S. Biathlon Association President and CEO Max Cobb told FasterSkier in a text message.
Some prominent athletes have been speaking individually about the prospect of a boycott.
“It’s not like it’s only one or two [athletes],” Martin Fourcade said in an interview with Norwegian broadcaster NRK. “It’s 31, added to the 12 we had the last few years in biathlon. And I hope if my federation don’t have big enough balls to take [on] the problem, the athletes do it on their own… If nothing is done in January, I will ask my colleagues in the international teams – I mean Norway, I mean Germany, Czech Republic, all of the nations – to don’t compete.”
Fourcade later said that his remarks were misinterpreted.
Gabriela Koukalova, the star of the Czech team, told a Czech news outlet that she would also skip Tyumen.
The Russian Biathlon Union, however, denies any involvement in doping or cover-ups. The federation and demanded that the World Cup be kept in Tyumen.
The following statement was posted on their website:
“Due to the current atmosphere in the media landscape on the matter of 31 Russian biathletes, suspected of using prohibited substances, RBU considers it necessary to issue the following statement.
In the course of several years, RBU has consistently pursued a policy of zero tolerance for doping. This is confirmed both by strict compliance of all Team Russia biathletes with the requirements of WADA and their due availability for control by WADA and other accredited organizations along with active collaboration of RBU with these organizations in the field of promotion of clean sport. Clear evidence of mentioned above – the official statistics of WADA concerning the number of doping tests taken in biathlon in 2014.
Starting spring’14, after the election of the new top management of the Russian biathlon Union, this cooperation has become even more intense.
Within the idea of zero tolerance for doping RBU held more than 10 seminars for athletes and coaches inviting representatives of national and international anti-doping organizations. All persons who had ever been involved or had been under suspicion of any connection with the use of prohibited substances were banned for life. In the course of internal tests at national competitions all the athletes who didn’t comply with strict requirements of RBU were caught and severely punished.
Another proof of zero tolerance for doping is the fact of cooperation of RBU with the foreign experts, such as Ricco Gross and Wolfgang Pichler, who would never agree to jeopardize their reputation.
We do not know the names of the athletes from the list that will be discussed by our respected colleagues from IBU on Thursday, December 22nd. However, we are ready to provide comprehensive information about any RBU athlete ever to participate in the biathlon Events. We admit that the majority of persons from this list are those who have already been accused of violation of doping rules by the RUSADA and RBU internal doping control and are currently disqualified or finished their career.”
Pichler is a German who came to prominence coaching the Swedish biathlon team and Magdalena Forsberg in particular. An outspoken opponent of doping, Pichler was hired to coach the Russian women’s team from 2012-2014. He has now returned to the Swedish team.
Within the Russian national team there were two training squads, with Pichler heading one of them. He said as early as the Sochi Olympics that he suspected there was doping within the other training group, headed by Vladimir Korolkevich. He had even tried to leave his post early due to concerns about doping.
But Pichler has maintained that his own athletes were clean. The report sheds doubt on that assertion. At least two of Pichler’s athletes – Olga Zaitseva and Yana Romanova – were on the “protected list” in Sochi. One of Romanova’s urine samples also showed signs of being tampered with by anti-doping officials. And more of his athletes may be among the 31 who were referred to only by alpha-numeric code identifiers in the report.
As for Gross, the German coach was only hired by Russia in August 2015.
“I know relatively little about what happened there,” he said in an interview with German broadcaster ZDF in early December. “I have only been a coach there for one year. It is being discussed, that much is clear. It does put pressure on the athletes, that they are being pointed at. I believe it’s not only a Russian problem, it is a worldwide problem which has to be tackled… I am experiencing a lot of support, also by [the Russian Biathlon Union], because they also want clean and fair sport. So at that moment it is sad when you are being pointed at again. They are following my line, if someone cheats he’ll be kicked out.”
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.