More Than Medals: Clean Sport in the ‘Icarus’ Era (Op-Ed)

FasterSkierMarch 21, 2018
Russia’s Alexander Legkov (3) after winning Olympic gold in the men’s 50 k freestyle mass start at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Russia’s anti-doping director at the time, Grigory Rodchenkov stated that he switched out Legkov’s anti-doping sample for a vial of clean urine collected previously. The International Olympic Committee stripped Legkov of his gold medal and banned him from future Olympics, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned those sanctions in February 2018.

Editor’s Note: The following thoroughly cited opinion piece, prompted by the 2017 ‘Icarus’ documentary, was written by Maks Zechel, a 20-year-old Canadian cross-country skier who spent the 2017/2018 race season training abroad with Team Asker in Norway. Zechel is a regular contributor at FasterSkier, with his ongoing series: “Closing the Gap”.


February 23, 2014

Sochi: a home Olympics and the opportunity of a lifetime. Russia, despite being one of the strongest skiing nations in the world, has no individual medals in cross-country skiing leading into the final race of the championships. As the athletes shuffle nervously in the tracks before the 50 k mass start, the pressure on the Russian men can be felt even by me, watching on TV from home.

Putin is in the stands. It’s just a ski race, but how much more than that is at stake?

“The Moscow Laboratory operated, for the protection of doped Russian athletes, within a State-dictated failsafe system” (McLaren 1)

A sunny day, a roaring home crowd. Alexander Legkov is in a world of his own as he absolutely destroys himself over the final climb, skiing with the passion that it takes in all sports to win an Olympic medal. Russian flags waving everywhere, the crowd is absolutely deafening as Legkov adds his first Olympic gold to his already legendary career. Maxim Vylegzhanin and Ilia Chernousov lunge across the line behind him, with Chernousov having given every last bit of himself to outsprint Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby to complete the Russian podium sweep on home soil. A dream come true.

“The Sochi Laboratory operated a unique sample swapping methodology to enable doped Russian athletes to compete at the Games” (McLaren 1)

When you ski with your teammates in front of your friends and family at home, you ski with a fire that is otherwise difficult to find. The presence of those who know you makes you feel guilty if you do not perform to your very best, you are pushed to keep up to those that your mind refuses to admit defeat against, and your own potential reaches new heights when your teammates accomplish something great. There is no cover of anonymity with which to hide the secrets behind your performance, because these people know what it took, and did not take, to get you to where you are.

“A pre-selected group of Russian athletes competing at Sochi were protected by the Sochi sample swapping methodology” (McLaren 67)

Despite the whispers of corruption surrounding Russia’s Olympic team, I cheered for those three skiers, who did the nigh-impossible and pushed their bodies as hard as anyone else to make their country proud. I do not know what exactly went into achieving that medal, but I do know that the incredible display of effort and the tears of happiness falling from Legkov’s face as he was raised onto his teammate’s shoulders, were very real.

“After he became laboratory director, and in furtherance of his responsibility to improve Russian sport performance by covering up doping, Dr. Rodchenkov developed a steroid cocktail optimized to avoid detection” (McLaren 49)

I first dreamt of going to the Olympics when I was 11 years old. This dream sparked an inner drive of mine that has lasted almost a decade, and I like to think that it will never extinguish. Sometimes, I wonder what lights that same flame in children around the world. In most countries, I like to think that many experience moments like mine: a motivation flourished from watching the passion of the Olympics, being inspired by older siblings, or being born with the need to be the first kid through the school doors when the bell rings for recess.

“The steroids were dissolved in alcohol … The solution was then swished in the mouth in order to be absorbed by the bucal membrane and then spit out … the detection window for the steroids in the cocktail would not exceed 3-5 days” (McLaren 49-50)

In parts of the world where fewer children are fortunate enough to make the decision to pursue a sport just because they are inspired, I wonder what brings them to those future championships. Is their talent used out of joy or out of the need to provide for those without the same athletic abilities? Was their talent exploited at a young age as a way for a country to show its dominance? Were they given a choice: to follow their dreams and do what they love by the prescribed method, or to not follow their heart at all?

I think about the lengths that I would go to support my family if they depended on me, and suddenly the way that I pursue sport seems insignificant, a trivial lifestyle “earned” through right of birth. Being born to these opportunities makes it all the more important to not waste them. My great-grandfather used to say, “if you’re going to do something, then you may as well do it right”, and those are words that I attempt to live by. To me, that means clean sport.

But clean sport is now more at risk than it has been in decades. Once an already colossal task of catching individual dirty athletes, we are now facing an extensive doping regime, backed by an entire government.

“[B]y the time of the Olympic Games in London, many of Russia’s top athletes were using the cocktail” (McLaren 51)

When faced with the enormity of the Russian state-sponsored doping system, it is no longer adequate to simply prosecute individual athletes. A large part of the problem when it comes to justly dealing with the system that made it possible for Russian athletes to cheat, is that WADA and the IOC are pitted against the entirety of the Russian government. It is not the USA and Canada versus Russia, or any other country versus Russia; it is two sporting entities, independent of any particular country, against the full power of the Russian government.

The Ministry of Sport directed, controlled and oversaw the manipulation of athlete’s analytical results or sample swapping, with the active participation and assistance of the FSB [Russian Federal Security Service], CSP [Center of Sports Preparation of National Teams of Russia], and both Moscow and Sochi Laboratories” (McLaren 1)

“… Deputy Minister of Sport, Yuri Nagornykh, was appointed in 2010 by Executive Order of then Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin(McLaren 10)

The state-run doping program organized for the Sochi Olympics was not just about sport, it was politically motivated, overseen by President Putin himself. This sets Russia apart from previous doping scandals, such as that of the Finnish cross-country ski team in 2001, where doping operations were concentrated to a select number of skiers and their coaches. When the truth was uncovered about their national heroes, Finland, in complete shock, took steps to recover from the international disgrace that its ski team had brought upon them (Andrews). Iivo Niskanen and Krista Pärmäkoski have proven that it is possible for a great skiing nation to recover from such a disaster and win clean, paving the way for the next generation of Finnish skiers.

“ … 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” (“World Anti-Doping Code” 21)

The situation we see today is different. After the exposure of irrefutable evidence confirming state-sponsored doping and the covering up of doping evidence in Russia, it came as a disappointment to many when the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) annulled the sanctions imposed by the IOC on 28 Russian athletes.

The evidence of coverups and doping are clear, but the CAS ruling was that “the evidence collected was found to be insufficient to establish that an anti-doping rule violation (ADRV) was committed by the athletes concerned” (“Media Release”). The evidence may be adequate to find Russia guilty of state-sponsored doping, but it is not enough to build a case against each individual athlete. This is likely because of the destruction and tampering of drug tests and results by Russian “anti”-doping personnel and Article of the World Anti-Doping Code, which states that, if the “detected Prohibited Substance came from a Contaminated Product, then the period of Ineligibility shall be, at a minimum, a reprimand and no period of Ineligibility, and at a maximum, two years Ineligibility” (“World Anti-Doping Code” 64).

But if the evidence is inadequate, then why are some Russian athletes still facing penalties? Alexander Legkov and Sergey Ustiugov were both unable to compete at the PyeongChang Olympics, but Ustiugov can still race on the World Cup, while Legkov cannot. Evidence against athletes like Legkov proves that they were in some way a part of the state-sponsored doping program, but it is difficult to legitimately sentence them when evidence proving exactly what they have done has been tampered with or destroyed. Athletes like Ustiugov have not been proven to be a part of Russian doping operations, but have violated Article 2.1 of the World Anti-Doping Code through their association with people who are a part of it. This article states that “Athletes and other Persons must not work with coaches, trainers, physicians or other Athlete Support Personnel who are Ineligible on account of an antidoping rule violation … Prohibited association need not involve any form of compensation. (“World Anti-Doping Code” 24).

Sport in Russia will never be fair until Russia takes responsibility for their crimes against clean sport. Whereas Finland bore the weight of what their athletes had done in 2001, and ensured that it would never happen again, the Russian government has more at stake than a few drugged athletes. When doping is politically motivated and backed by the state, I do not think it is possible to solve the issue through sanctions by sporting bodies such as WADA and the IOC alone. Until the Russian government is pushed by other nations to take an interest in ensuring that sports in Russia are clean, the problem can never be completely resolved.

Until substantial action is taken, we will continue to be caught up in a stalemate of “partial blanket bans” and other half-measures. When imposed on a level of command that is too low in the Russian doping system, these actions cannot bring about the outright eradication of doping that we seek. Are sports a high enough priority for entire countries to impose sanctions on the Russian government until they answer for their crimes against clean sport? Or will doping be protected by other political motivations that keep Russia inseparable from the rest of the world? The scope of the Russian government’s involvement in doping is far beyond the reach of traditional sporting sanctions.  

“Clean sport is dead” — Jim Walden, lawyer of Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov (Panja and Pérez-Peña).

The sporting world no longer holds its breath in anticipation of change. An uncertain future exists for clean sport, but even more disconcerting is the stagnation in which we now settle. With the anti-doping world left spinning its tires in frustration, where does that leave athletes for whom a future of fair play is too late?

Icarus, 2017 documentary film, debuted Aug. 4, 2017 on Netflix (Photo: Wikipedia)

In his dramatic documentary, Icarus, director Bryan Fogel convinced many sports fans that clean athletics, despite the improvement of anti-doping efforts over the years, is a hopeless pursuit. Fogel’s documentary was key to bringing the extent of systematic doping in Russia into the public eye.

In Icarus, Fogel takes anti-doping research to a personal level: after years of training as a high-level (amateur) cyclist, he spends a full year preparing for the “Haute Route” amateur cycling event, while following a doping program. This was prescribed to him by Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov (the former director of Russia’s Anti-Doping Center, turned whistleblower, who is now under the witness protection program in the U.S.).

Fogel routinely took a cocktail of PEDs (Performance Enhancing Drugs), under the careful guidance of Dr. Rodchenkov, and saw massive improvements in his power output ratings on the bike in less than a year. Having placed 14th in the seven-day Haute Route event the previous year, while racing clean, it seemed clear that Fogel would be a strong contender for the win.

He ended up finishing the unbelievably hard event in a far worse position than when he raced clean. From an athlete’s perspective, this does not surprise me. I understand that there are countless elements involved in producing an incredible athletic performance at a set time and place. Fogel’s reaction was different; visibly depressed, he talked of how sobering it was to realize that, no matter what he did, he could never be as great as his cycling heroes. This is a delusional conclusion, one that is biased by his dreams (influenced by growing up with Lance Armstrong as a hero) of becoming a better cyclist.

In these turbulent times for clean sport, it is important for athletes to remember that there are many aspects to training and competing, aside from other athletes cheating, that they can control. Living in Norway has taught me that there is a lot more to skiing fast than just being fit, and that applies to all sports.

Drugs don’t magically make you a fast skier, just like a high VO2 max score doesn’t make you a competitive World Cup skier. There are many elements to cross-country skiing that have a far bigger effect on a skier’s ability to ski fast than drugs do. If skiing were purely about fitness, aerobic machines like Hans Christer Holund would beat skiers with a lower VO2 max, like Petter Northug and Finn Hågen Krogh, without contest. Divergent technique revolutions, like those brought to us by pioneering skiers such as Petter Northug and Johannes Høsflot Klæbo, show us just how many ways there are to win a ski race.

In his reaction to not becoming a better cyclist even while doping, Bryan Fogel shows what he is: a film director with a remarkable story to tell. As most people would, he takes his failures in sport and attributes them to his personal characteristics; he feels he is simply not good enough at a genetic level. While not everyone will reach their athletic dreams, true failure occurs only when you stop trying after the first attempt. When athletes make changes to their training, it is rare to see dramatic results in the following competition season. Some things will never yield improvements, while other things take a few years of consistent work before they take effect. In the highly competitive world of cross-country skiing in Norway, many skiers go unnoticed down the results list for years, they are seen as average, before suddenly rocketing to incredible new heights seemingly out of nowhere. That is the nature of how training, competition, and life stress the body and mind over a prolonged period of time. To take a one-year snippet of an athlete’s life and make broad conclusions about sport is naive.  

An otherwise brave and instructive self-experiment that helped uncover the scope of how doping continues to mar the sporting world uncontestedly, Fogel’s conclusion of his doping experiment sends the wrong message to the audience viewing Icarus. The message he sends is that only extremely gifted humans can become great athletes. This personal look into how his experiences have affected him make his documentary engaging and dramatic, something that the genre normally lacks for your average movie audience. The devastation that Fogel portrays in this realization hits viewers hard and the movie adopts an “apocalyptic” tone from that point on. The worldwide end of clean sport is confirmed with Rodchenkov’s exposé of Russian state-sponsored doping and the footage of him escaping Russia with his life in danger. Icarus uncovers frightening realities that affect the sports we love, but the film also incites new dangers to the culture surrounding sport.

Although accurate in their severity, the events at the end of Icarus doom its audience to pessimism against the current world of sports. This acts as fuel for ungrounded accusations against successful athletes by uninformed viewers. When a complicated issue arises, people quickly try to make sense of it by looking for a distinction between good and evil. By making an issue seem black and white, anyone can have a strong opinion about it, because the choosing of sides is based on your morals. You are either against doping, or you support it. Unfortunately, the issue is not so simple, but this type of inflamed, unschooled “debate” is perfect advertising for a film such as Icarus.

When making conclusions about an issue, it is our duty to question how someone else’s portrayal of events is affecting our opinion and to keep ourselves informed. FasterSkier Editor-at-Large Chelsea Little is an example of the brave reporting and investigating that it takes to keep organizations such as WADA and the IOC held accountable. We owe it to journalists like Chelsea, who sacrifice countless hours of their personal lives to enlighten us about the issues that affect us the most, to simply read their vital research. We must take the facts from the sources available to us, and add our own informed debate to the world of sport, because angry, baseless commentary are what keep humanity from moving forward.

Most Olympic athletes…would favour lifetime bans for doped athletes. IOC President, Thomas Bach, himself an Olympic champion, has publicly indicated a personal preference for life bans, but has correctly noted that the legal order, particularly in relation to human rights issues, will not permit such automatic sanctions, for first offences. Nor does the Code. The IOC itself has lost an appeal before CAS in respect of an IOC rule providing for the automatic exclusion of any doped athletes from Olympic competition in the Olympic Games next following the imposition of even a first doping sanction. (Pound, et al. 63)

It is our responsibility as athletes to represent all of those that have helped us and to lead by example. We can start with the atmosphere that we create amongst our fellow athletes. The culture of discrimination and groundless accusations against clean, Eastern-European athletes, or any successful athlete in endurance sports, has to stop. The “blame game” has some of the same ill-effects on our sport that we are trying to prevent by fighting against doping. Remember how ashamed Canadians felt when Ben Johnson, our “Olympic champion hero”, was caught for doping? Now imagine the irreversible damage that would have been done if he had been falsely accused. By telling young athletes that anyone doing something impressive — something that we could not imagine ourselves doing — is doping, teaches young athletes that no matter how hard they work, they will never become greater than their biggest dreams.

“The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics, whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men [people] who can dream of things that never were, and ask why not.” — John F. Kennedy (“J.F.K. in Ireland”)

Teach young people to dream outside the realms of what they see as possible, and they will get there via the path you set them.

Athletes have the power to make more of a difference than just complaining about the flaws of their sport. Sports are visually flashy and exciting to an audience, and athletes are celebrated around the world for their raw fight against the limits of the human body. The hero-status of athletes gives them a sphere of influence greater than that of other members of society who work equally hard, or harder, in the goal of helping people.

The playing field of sport will never be equal for every child born on earth, when some athletes fight past obstacles far greater than the trials of sport, just to get to the start line. If we are lucky enough to be living the life of an athlete, it is not enough just to win medals.

Endurance sports may not get the same extent of attention as soccer, football, or basketball, but the popularity of these sports has elevated some athletes to leadership roles from which athletes from smaller sports can learn. Take LeBron James, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, who has recently come under fire for his comments regarding President Trump. Some feel that his place in society is to play basketball and entertain, not to comment on political events, but he has decided that his popularity gives him a greater responsibility than just playing sports:

“I mean too much to society [to ‘shut up and dribble’] … I mean too much to the youth, I mean too much to so many kids that feel like they don’t have a way out and they need someone to help lead them out of the situation they’re in.” — LeBron James (Conway)

As a Canadian, the opportunity that I have to pursue cross country skiing is a selfish privilege. I have the chance to use sport to meet new people, to inspire, and to use my experiences and influences to create a better world around me. Otherwise, I am just a lucky individual, riding on the support of those that I do little to help, enjoying what I have been given and doing little to share my wealth. I work hard at what I do, but to think that I am an inspiration to others simply through my existence would be incredibly pretentious. Athletes can gloat in their athletic prowess, or they can use their abilities to promote the joy of sport, health of body and mind, and the hard work involved in reaching a goal.

Good leadership is to rise and accept challenges even with the possibility of failure. Leaders show their true qualities, and that shows others that they can only achieve success by being their honest selves. Leaders show that there are no shortcuts.

My heart breaks every time that one of my idols is suspected of cheating. It doesn’t hurt because it’s unfair; it hurts because I saw myself in their footsteps, and every time they succeeded, I saw that I could, too. Our dreams scare us because they seem impossible from where we currently stand. When I look at my heroes, I see my future; they are living my dreams, proving them possible. My dreams are crushed when one of my favourite athletes is caught for doping, because that tells me that I am not good enough to be great. Some say that we watch the Olympics to witness the impossible happen, but I watch the Olympics to see the people who started off where I am accomplish the things that seem impossible to me now.

Despite the damning evidence against Russian sport as a whole, I refuse to believe that every Russian athlete is doping for the same reasons that I refuse to believe that the majority of top cross-country skiers are doping. It must be remembered that skiers are people, and the vast majority of people who have grown up surrounded by the positive and welcoming culture that exists in cross-country skiing around the world, do not become cheaters. Even in Norway, where skiing culture is on a much bigger scale than that of North America, it remains a community of people who love being outside year-round, exploring the world around them and the limits of their bodies.

We must keep sport a positive and safe space for people to grow into compassionate citizens of the world. Clean sport isn’t important just so that medals are handed out to the rightful winners; sport must remain possible for real people everywhere, because when doping is left unchecked, sport loses all significance as a tool to inspire, bring people together, and make the world a better place.

March 2, 2011

Alex Harvey (r) and Devon Kershaw (l) celebrating their World Championships gold in 2011 in Oslo.

My heart pounds in my chest. Adrenaline courses through my body as my ungainly 13-year old legs run chaotically down the front steps. The slam of the door behind me pierces the stillness of the heavy evening air, but to my ears the whole world is alive in celebration. The rush of blood in my ears is deafening as I relive the race in my head. Alex passing Hattestad — shushing the crowd across the line –raising his arms in disbelief — Devon and Alex playing air guitar on their skis — walking before the massive crowd to the top step of the podium — WORLD CHAMPIONS! … The excitement settles into a glow that becomes an immovable rock of confidence in my chest. I start to notice where I am, running aimlessly to the top of a grassy hill above the trees. I smile as I look down to where I came from: “Yes”, I think, “I can do it, too.”


Works Cited

Further Reading:

Chelsea Little:

FasterSkier spreadsheet showing skiers mentioned in the McLaren Report:

McLaren Reports Part 1 and 2:

IC Report:

CAS rulings media release:

CAS dismissal of Russian athletes’ appeal:

CBS News 60 Minutes interview with Grigory Rodchenkov:

IOC Code of Ethics:

Icarus, documentary directed by Bryan Fogel (available on Netflix)

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