The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has ruled that Russian cross-country skiers Alexander Legkov and Evgeniy Belov doped at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
The IOC Disciplinary Commission headed by Denis Oswald, referred to as the Oswald Commission, issued a decision today stating that the two athletes had violated Article 2 of the anti-doping rules for Sochi.
As a result, Legkov’s gold medal in the 50-kilometer freestyle mass start, the Russian men’s silver medal in the 4 x 10 k relay, and Legkov’s 10th-place finish in the 30 k skiathlon are all invalidated, as are Belov’s 18th-place finish in the skiathlon and his 25th-place result in the 15 k classic.
The ruling states that Legkov must return his medals.
Significantly, the two athletes are also “declared ineligible to be accredited in any capacity for all editions of the Games of the Olympiad and the Olympic Winter Games subsequent to the Sochi Olympic Winter Games.” That means they won’t be able to compete in PyeongChang, South Korea, in February.
The Oswald Commission also left it up to the International Ski Federation (FIS) to “consider any further action within its own competence.”
The decision is partially a result of hearings held on Monday, where the athletes were present. Several other Russian skiers also had hearings on the same day, and the results of their cases have not yet been announced.
The decision released was a summary, and the detailed reasoning behind it is not yet available.
The athletes will have the option of appealing the ruling to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), and a statement from the athletes’ lawyer says that they will do so “at the latest tomorrow.”
(Update #1) It is unknown what evidence the Oswald Commission primarily relied on to make its decision, but CAS has signaled that it largely trusts evidence from the McLaren report, the investigation commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, which back in 2016 revealed manipulation of the anti-doping process at the 2014 Olympics.
CAS deemed the McLaren report largely reliable in a September decision upholding Legkov’s provisional suspension by FIS, reserving its critiques for the author’s absence from the hearing process. It also upheld the ban of a Russian triple-jumper using exclusively evidence from the McLaren report.
The Oswald Commission was intended to gather additional evidence. It also re-examined anti-doping sample bottles from Sochi. Professor Richard McLaren had sent the bottles to a forensic analysis lab in London, which determined that the bottles had been tampered with. The Oswald Commission asked a laboratory at the University of Lausanne to develop its own procedure to confirm this finding.
Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of the Moscow anti-doping laboratory who turned whistleblower to The New York Times and whose testimony formed a large basis of the McLaren report, reportedly testified to the Oswald Commission on Saturday.
One aspect of the decision seems potentially vulnerable to appeal. In the past, CAS has ruled that lifetime Olympic bans are not allowed. In those cases, however, its reasoning was more concerned with putting athletes into double jeopardy than to an inherent problem with the concept of a lifetime ban.
In 2008, the IOC put into force what was deemed the “Osaka Rule”, stating that any athlete who had served a doping ban longer than six months could not compete in the next Olympics, even if their suspension was completed. An American athlete, LaShawn Merritt, appealed this to CAS, which found in his favor that the IOC could not, in effect, lengthen a suspension which had already been determined by a different organization.
The decision turned on considerations of double jeopardy, the principle that a person should not be punished a second time for an action which had already been adjudicated. CAS was concerned that an athlete in these circumstances would be punished twice for “the same behavior.” The Merritt decision does not seem to establish that a lifetime Olympic ban is per se impermissible, if reached for the correct procedural and substantive reasons.
Then, ahead of the 2012 Olympics, the British Olympic Association tried to insert a provision into their team qualification procedures that any athlete who had previously served a doping ban was ineligible for the Games, even if their suspension had been completed. CAS knocked this down, deeming the additional ban an illegal “extra sanction” that was not in compliance with the World Anti-Doping Code.
In 2016, the IOC stated that it would continue to push for lifetime Olympic bans for athletes who had been caught doping.
If FIS issues a separate suspension to Legkov and Belov, it would likely encompass the upcoming season, keeping them out of the Olympics even if the IOC’s lifetime ban is not upheld. For instance, Austria’s Johannes Dürr, who was found to be using the blood-doping drug erythropoietin at the 2014 Olympics, was disqualified from the Games by the IOC and then suspended for two years from international competition by FIS.
(Update #2) Elena Välbe, head of the Russian Ski Federation for cross-country skiing, did discuss the hearings in the Russian press to some extent. She indicated that the Lausanne lab had found problems with some of the sample bottles. “They found that … some of our athletes also had them, probably the biggest problem in this respect is with Alexander Legkov,” she told R-Sport on Monday, according to a translation, before adding, “but, in fact, there is no other evidence.”
Sources also indicated to R-Sport that the other four Russian skiers whose cases are being considered — Julia Ivanova, Evgenia Shapovalova, Alexey Petukhov and Maxim Vylezhanin — will likely get the same treatment that has been given to Legkov and Belov.
Indeed, Vylegzhanin – another member of the Russian relay team, and the silver medalist in the 50 k – told sports.ru that “If such a verdict is passed on them, then this can be expected for us.”
(Update #3) If both Legkov and Vylegzhanin are disqualified, there could be a substantial medal re-allocation in the men’s 50 k. Third-place Ilia Chernousov, also from Russia but not implicated the McLaren report, would stand to gain gold. Fourth-place Martin Johnsrud Sundby of Norway would take silver, and fifth-place Sergei Dolidovich of Belarus would earn bronze.
In the men’s relay, third-place France (Jean Marc Gaillard, Maurice Manificat, Robin Duvillard, and Ivan Perillat Boiteux) would earn silver, and fourth-place Norway (Eldar Rønning, Chris Andre Jespersen, Sundby, and Petter Northug) would earn bronze.
Vylegzhanin also won silver in the men’s team sprint with Nikita Kriukov. Were that result invalidated, Sweden’s Emil Jönsson and Teodor Peterson would move from bronze to silver, and fourth-place Northug and Ola Vigen Hattestad would earn bronze.
It would be a huge reversal for the Norwegian men’s cross-country team, which originally won only two medals in Sochi (gold by Hattestad in the sprint and bronze by Sundby in the 30 k skiathlon). This seeming underperformance was a source of disappointment to the team and the nation at the time.
“We do not know the details and only have information through the media, but this is a sad and disappointing day for international skiing,” Norwegian Ski Federation President Erik Røste said in a press release, according to a translation. “We are now awaiting a reason for the IOC’s decision, and many suggest that we will get more detailed information in the days to come… those involved have already stated that they will appeal the judgments, and we hope there will be a final decision as quickly as possible.”
“This is just sad for cross-country sports, no matter what the conclusions of the case are… If this ends with me receiving Olympic medals, I won’t enjoy them with this backdrop,” Sundby said in the same press release.
Sundby lost his 2015 Tour de Ski title and 2015 overall World Cup title, as well as served a two-month suspension, over incorrect use of an asthma medication.
Were the medals to be reallocated in this way, several athletes would become first-time medalists. That includes Dolidovich, who never podiumed at the international level but was fourth in the 30 k skiathlon at the 2011 World Championships and fifth in the 50 k mass start at 2009 World Championships, as well as having eleven World Cup top-10’s.
It would also be the first time Norway’s Rønning or Jespersen received Olympic medals; Rønning had won four World Championships relay gold medals for Norway, as well as a sprint bronze of his own in 2009, but Jespersen was a first-time Olympian who had never before competed at a World Championships.
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.