The International Ski Federation (FIS) has denied an appeal by six Russian cross-country skiers suspended under the suspicion of doping.
FIS and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are investigating the six athletes because bottles used to store their urine samples from the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, bore signs of tampering. FIS suspended the skiers while the investigation takes place.
The athletes had appealed this suspension because many planned to compete in the Tour de Ski, starting on Saturday.
“After receiving written submissions from the athletes and the response from FIS, the FIS Doping Panel made the unanimous decision today to uphold the provisional suspensions of the Russian Cross Country athletes, Evgeniy Belov, Julia Ivanova, Alexander Legkov, Evgenia Shapovalova, Alexey Petukhov and Maxim Vylegzhanin,” FIS wrote in a statement emailed to the press. “The reasons for the Panel’s decision will be communicated directly to the athletes in due course. As a result of the decision, all of the above mentioned athletes may not take part in any competitions or national team activities.”
This was also the first time that FIS publicly named the six skiers.
FIS Secretary General Sarah Lewis told FasterSkier last week that one other athlete may be suspended.
“There is only one additional non-Games time case and this is presently being processed,” she wrote in an email. “The timeline is the next week if possible.”
That brings the total number of cases in progress to seven. FasterSkier identified at least 34 skiers mentioned in the McLaren report, an investigation into systematic doping in Russia.
Content of Legkov and Belov Appeal
Legkov and Belov, sometime training partners who were previously based in Davos, Switzerland, hired German lawyer Christof Wieschemann. He filed an appeal for the pair to be reinstated before the Tour de Ski. The text of their public statement is available in German and in Russian.
The appeal, in summary, states the following:
- FIS did not tell the athletes what part of the World Anti-Doping Code they were suspected of violating.
- The suspensions were based on the McLaren report’s findings that sample bottles had been opened and closed after sample collection. Wieschemann notes that in some other cases, the samples were positive for banned substances, or even belonged to a different person than the athlete who was supposedly being tested. This was not true for either Legkov or Belov. Evidence showed only that the bottles had been opened or tampered with. Wieschemann argues that this does not necessarily mean that the samples were not “clean”.
- According to Wieschemann, neither Legkov nor Belov were on the “Duchess” list. That was a list of athletes who were provided banned performance-enhancing drugs by the Russian government and then protected from anti-doping measures.
The statement also notes that Legkov and Belov were often previously tested by outside anti-doping agencies in Europe.
“There is neither a positive sample from either of the athletes, nor any other indication that they could have taken banned substances… Such a connection is also not provided in the McLaren Report,” the statement says, according to a translation. “In fact, both athletes also gave blood samples in Sochi, which were negative. McLaren does not provide any information about swapping blood samples. This is a sure sign that both athletes were not drugged at the time of the Olympic Games.”
Complicit in Tampering or Not?
FIS wrote in their statement that “the reasons for the Panel’s decision will be communicated directly to the athletes in due course.” The rationale was not described to the media.
However, there are several reasons that FIS may want to keep the athletes suspended while they finish their investigation.
Article 2.5 of the World Anti-Doping Code prohibits “Tampering or Attempted Tampering with any part of Doping Control: Conduct which subverts the doping Control process but which would not otherwise be included in the definition of Prohibited Methods. Tampering shall include, without limitation, intentionally interfering or attempting to interfere with a doping Control official, providing fraudulent information to an anti-doping organization or intimidating or attempting to intimidate a potential witness.”
A footnote clarifies that “for example, this Article would prohibit altering identification numbers on a Doping Control form during Testing, breaking the B bottle at the time of B Sample analysis, or altering a Sample by the addition of a foreign substance.”
Sports organizations must decide the appropriate action for cases where a sample was tampered with by someone other than an athlete.
According to emails in the McLaren report, anti-doping officials opened sample bottles in order to replace “dirty” urine with “clean” urine. That means that the athletes must have been complicit in providing the “clean” urine sample in the first place. Yet it’s also very possible that some sample bottles were either opened by mistake or tampered with in a different way, without the knowledge or complicity of the athlete.
FIS may have evidence that they have not disclosed. The federation may also simply want more time to determine whether the athletes were complicit in sample manipulation.
Other Reasons the Appeal May Have Failed
Legkov and Belov do appear in planning documents for Sochi released as part of the McLaren report evidence packet. At the very least, that means that the government anti-doping officials carefully noted and tracked their participation at the Games.
Regarding the clean blood samples, this may not be sufficient evidence that athletes had not taken performance-enhancing drugs. Urine and blood samples detect different substances over different periods of time.
“A blood sample does not replace a urine test, because it concerns primarily different substances and different methods,” the Finnish Center for Integrity in Sports, SUEK, writes on its website.
Urine contains substances excreted from the body, while blood contains those integrated into the body. Testing agencies may not even test for all of the same substances in the two different types of samples. For example, human growth hormone is tested in blood, but not in urine; steroids are easier to detect in urine than in blood.
Furthermore, the IOC may not have even fully tested the samples collected at the Olympics.
“The initial tests take place in the lab located in the Olympic city,” NBC wrote of Olympic testing procedures. “Because of the huge number of samples and tests that need to be conducted in a short period of time, not every sample is tested for every drug. Experts take educated guesses on which set of athletes are more likely to use certain drugs and run the according tests.”
Finally, Wieschemann’s statement concludes that “Alexander Legkov and Evgeny Belov have at no time used prohibited means or applied forbidden methods.”
Yet the McLaren report clearly shows discussion of Legkov’s positive test for budesonide at 2014 Russian Championships. The test was never reported to the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Budesonide is a corticosteroid sometimes used in asthma medication. In September, Secretary General of the Russian Ski Federation Georgiy Mnatsakanov told Norways’ NRK broadcaster that both Legkov and Ilia Chernousov used asthma medication despite the fact that they have no diagnosis of asthma.
Email released as part of the McLaren report show that Legkov did not have a Therapeutic Use Exemption for such medication.
-Harald Zimmer contributed reporting.
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.