Russia doping saga still posing more questions than answers

Russia still denies that state sponsored doping existed in Sochi 2014

state-sponsored doping

Russia doping saga still posing more questions than answers

Russia seems likely to avoid a fresh suspension when the World Anti-Doping Agency Executive Committee decides on Tuesday. But have any lessons really been learned from such a damaging episode? Nick Butler and Hajo Seppelt explore.

Sports politics and real politics share much in common and anyone studying the Russian doping scandal will notice similarities with other episodes, such as Brexit. Neither side really listening to the other, plenty of hysterical shouting and processes and deadlines that seem to change constantly. And, like Brexit being a symbol of wider discontent, the Russia problem is just one spotlight illuminating general problems of drug misuse in sport.

Russia has now supposedly delivered full data from the computer systems of the Moscow Laboratory to WADA following a laborious inspection. Yes, they did so 18 days after the deadline and it has not yet been fully analysed to check it is genuine and complete. But, when dealing with a country that flouts international rules as comfortably as Russia often does, even this is a cautious success.

As always, it seems, the real answer will not be clear for another few months. There are estimations that around 300 to 600 doping cases could ultimately result, although both lower and higher numbers are also being cited. Could some of Russia’s stars from the Sochi Olympics who were cleared of wrongdoing by the Court of Arbitration of Sport be implicated again? Could some top active Russian athletes be accused? Or will it be largely retired and lower-level athletes who are not competing anyway?

If Russia are found to have manipulated data, will WADA be prepared to do something about it given the huge pressure they are under from the International Olympic Committee to bring the process to an end?

Do sports governing bodies care about Russian doping cases?

And, if cases are taken forward, will the responsible sports governing bodies actually do anything about it? Some might, like athletics and biathlon. But take ice hockey, for instance. The International Federation President René Fasel attended the inauguration ceremony of Vladimir Putin last year and there seems little appetite to investigate allegations which include members of the Russian women’s team in Sochi submitting male DNA in urine samples, surely as good a suggestion of tampering as any?

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The other key question for now concerns lessons from the whole Russia affair. It is trendy in WADA circles to claim that it was the wake-up call to improve the system. Has this happened? There are better systems now for protecting and acting upon information from whistleblowers, which has been illustrated though investigations into biathlon and corruption at the Budapest Laboratory. There is also a new legal standard for sanctioning all the bodies involved, although the whole process is still subject to political manoeuvrings.

Das Dopingkontrolllabor in Moskau

18 days after the deadline expired, WADA's investigators gained access to the Moscow Lab.

Richard McLaren, the investigator who headed the 2016 investigation which found state-sponsored Russian doping, told ARD that far better auditing is required so WADA would be able to detect manipulation of testing procedures in laboratories again.

The leaks by the Russian-intelligence linked Fancy Bears hacking group also raised many valid questions about the abuse of Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUE), where athletes can receive medical permission to take otherwise banned substances. ARD’s expose with Austrian cross country skier Johannes Dürr also repeated concerns about the abuse of asthma medication by athletes seeking an advantage.

None of this has changed yet.

Like Brexit, all sides seem hypocritical and blinkered. WADA must deal with Russia correctly but there is plenty else that needs sorting out, too.

Stand: 22.01.2019, 12:50