In Russian Doping Scandal, Time for a Punishment to Fit the Crime


I know Sir Craig is a knight and all that. So please, just this once, let him pull out his broad sword and slay a dragon.

This week it’s the turn of another world body with a not-so-illustrious record, the International Association of Athletics Federations. On Friday, the I.A.A.F., which governs track and field, will announce whether Russia and its athletes can participate in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

The I.A.A.F. is run by another knight, the former Olympic gold medal runner Lord Sebastian Coe. In 2015, Lord Coe, a longtime vice president in the organization, replaced Lamine Diack, who had served as president for 16 years. Soon after he left the I.A.A.F., Diack was arrested. He has been accused of taking many, many bribes to cover up positive doping tests by Russian athletes.

Diack held a seat on the International Olympic Committee, as Sir Craig does currently. International sport is cozy. (Olympic reform is best pushed genteelly, not to mention gingerly; honk too loudly about transgressions and your country might find its hopes of hosting an Olympics dashed.)

WADA has taken a few important steps. Last year, its report uncovered systemic corruption in Russian track and field, and pointed to many strands of corruption in winter sports. However, agency leaders resisted for many months calling in investigators to plunge down the necessary alleyways.

All the while, the agency’s own athletes’ committee, and the heads of various national federations, pleaded for full investigations.

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Russian Doctor Explains How He Helped Beat Doping Tests at the Sochi Olympics

A step-by-step look at how Russian agents used an elaborate scheme to swap out tainted urine samples for clean ones taken months earlier.



OPEN Graphic


Now my colleagues Ruiz, Juliet Macur and Ian Austen reported this week that WADA not only sat on detailed tips from Russian whistle-blowers, but also passed along word of one such whistle-blower to the same government officials accused of running the doping program.

“You need to have proper, corroborated evidence in order to prove things,” Sir Craig said. “Secondly, we didn’t have powers under the old code to investigate.”

Both of his claims are baffling. WADA had, since 2010, two firsthand witnesses, a top athlete and a top official in the Russian antidoping agency, testifying to corruption in doping. Now there is another witness, Grigory Rodchenkov, who ran the laboratory that handled the tests of thousands of Russian Olympians, and who described for The New York Times how he developed a powerful, three-drug doping elixir.

Rodchenkov sounds an awful lot like the Joe Valachi of Russian sports. (Valachi was the first great Mafia informer.) The good doctor estimated that by the end of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, he and his work mates had expunged 100 dirty test results.

Russian athletes won a splendid number of medals at those Winter Games.

I’m no district attorney, but that strikes me as powerful firsthand testimony. As well, WADA was explicitly charged with monitoring code compliance by its signatories, which includes Russia.

In December 2014, the chief of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, Travis Tygart, wrote a tough, four-page private letter to WADA. He suggested that it strap on its police cap and badge and get to work.

“Anything less than a full, complete and successful investigation by WADA … would constitute an abdication of WADA’s responsibilities,” he wrote in a letter also signed by the board chairman, Edwin Moses. “We do not believe that WADA lacks the power to conduct an investigation, protect witnesses or take steps” to investigate whether national agencies have become corrupted.

Throat clearing is necessary here.

Russian athletes are not uniquely fallen creatures. The list of American runners and bikers and skiers who have doped is long and desultory, although there is no evidence that this is state-directed. The Salt Lake Winter Olympics in 2002 was a festival of bribes and doping. An Italian doctor was the Dr. Frankenstein of sports doping. The Finns had a major doping scandal a decade or so back. The Kenyan and Ethiopian long-distance runners would be a heartwarming marvel were it not that so many keep getting nabbed by blood doping.

Athletes everywhere face justifiable doubts. But that narrative coexists with a more hopeful one. Save for Russia and a few other nations, the battle against doping has taken many strides forward. Circumstantial evidence for this is found in the fact that in most disciplines, athletes no longer set records every few years. That was true during the 1980s and 1990s. (The Popeye-and-Bluto home run years in major league baseball offered a direct corollary, replete with complicity by the owners and rulers of that sport.)

“It’s much harder to dope, and the advantage you can gain is less than it used to be,” notes Max Cobb, director of U.S. Biathlon and a longtime reformer in the arena of world sport. “Micro-dosing can take an athlete from 10th place to first place, but you’re no longer seeing those extraordinary, ‘Oh my God, how did that guy finish two minutes faster’ moments.”

The question now is what to do when a nation goes rogue and dedicates itself to systematically undermining doping regulations. The Russians under Vladimir Putin have lashed their national pride to the mast of athletic achievement.

Russia is a global superpower, and not easily sent stomping to its room.

But even the latest interim report from WADA this week gives not much cause for hope. A large number of athletes continue to evade tests, and when asked their whereabouts, as is required of every athlete worldwide so that drug testers can find them, a striking number of Russian athletes list so-called “military cities.”

Testing officers need special permission to enter these cities, which delays and in some cases prevents testing.

When in Eugene, Ore., last month, I talked about this with the American runner Richards-Ross. “I’m literally tested at least two times a week,” she said. “At least. I’m happy to live up to those standards. I just want that standard to be the same all around the world, including Russia.”

That seems a reasonable request. On Friday, we’ll see if the cops of sport are up to the task of walking their beat.

Correction: June 16, 2016

An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated the circumstances under which Lamine Diack left the presidency of the I.A.A.F. His presidency ended before he was arrested on charges of bribe-taking; his arrest did not lead to the end of his term in office.

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