Russian disaster sums up failing global anti-doping system

Doping samples in a fridge in the Moscow Anti Doping Laboratory

Doping Scandal

Russian disaster sums up failing global anti-doping system

Russia has been given leeway despite missing a deadline to open-up its drug-testing laboratory to international inspectors. The whole affair typifies an anti-doping landscape lacking both the ability and desire to genuinely reform. Nick Butler and Hajo Seppelt explore.

Life is full of surprises, but a December 21 announcement that World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) inspectors were unable to complete their extraction of data from the Moscow Laboratory was not one.

The delay was caused by a previously unmentioned but suspiciously convenient concern that the team’s equipment was not certified under Russian law. A “hard deadline” of December 31 for the data extraction passed without progress. But then, on Orthodox Christmas Day a week later, it was announced that a fresh inspection was taking place regardless.

The Anti Doping Laboratory in Moscow

WADA's investigators demand access to the Moscow Anti Doping Laboratory

WADA had repeatedly warned that the Russian Anti-Doping Agency’s (RUSADA) suspension would be re-imposed if the deadline was not met. Yet they now cite “international standards” and legal demands meaning that Russia must have a few extra days to comply.

Critics dismissed as “lynch mob”

Cue hysteria from an increasingly vocal group of western athletes, who were unfairly dismissed as a “lynch mob” by WADA’s founding President Dick Pound.

WADA, like most political bodies, are unswervingly loyal to legal processes when it suits their argument. But they were happy to lift their RUSADA suspension in September without all the conditions having been met. The reactive nature of their communications also gives the impression that they are making things up as they go along.

A meeting of WADA’s Compliance Review Committee mid-January will assess the data - presuming they get it - and make a recommendation for the Executive Committee to consider a week later over re-imposing the suspension. WADA will only have conducted a very basic analysis of this data, though, and it will take far longer to assess whether it has been tampered with.

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The process will consequently drag-on into the summer. Surely non-compliance should be declared in the meantime until the analysis is complete? Even if this is a largely symbolic punishment?

Richard McLaren, the head of a WADA panel who produced the damning report of state-sponsored doping at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2016, estimates to ARD that, with the full electronic data, they could be able to build cases against 300 to 600 Russian athletes, although it is hard to calculate and the number could be higher.

If this happens, WADA would deserve praise for treading a fine line on the most precarious of tightropes.

But does anybody seriously expect Russia to now play ball? And why should they?

Time to “draw a line” under Russian doping?

IOC-president Thomas Bach and Russia's president Vladimir Putin

Often seen in friendly exchange with each other: IOC-president Thomas Bach and Russia's president Putin

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach argued on New Year’s Day how it was time to “draw a line under this damaging episode”. This message, whether intended or not, effectively told the Russians that they would be welcomed back, however they behaved.

Different factions in Russia want different things. But numerous delaying games have been played to string the whole case out for even longer. Some suspect that they initially allowed WADA inspectors access last month only to assess their strategy, so they knew what evidence needed to disappear.

We will see…or probably we won’t.  

Russia are simply too powerful. Many sports governing bodies are too dependent on Putin’s regime for lucrative commercial and event-hosting contracts in an increasingly fragile market.

The IOC are the ringleaders in this response. They opposed any blanket ban of Russia at the Rio Olympics after McLaren’s Report was published. In Brazil, they attacked WADA for proposing a suspension and it was this pressure which eventually culminated in the anti-doping body’s U-turn in September. The IOC did hand Russia a suspension of sorts from the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics last year. Yet even this was a murky compromise in which the team was rebranded as “Olympic Athletes from Russia” and would - had it not been for two more doping failures during the Games - have been allowed to march under their own flag at the Closing Ceremony.

The yet-to-be-lifted suspensions by the International Paralympic Committee and the International Association of Athletics Federations have been the only consistently strong responses from any sporting body.

Doping is far from just a Russian problem.

It is clear that only a fraction of doping athletes active over the past 40 years have been caught. When athletes do fail, they often argue mitigating factors and receive minimal punishment. Sometimes this process is not even made public. There is little appetite in many sports - think football, basketball, tennis and boxing - to explore possible doping. Painkillers, asthma medication, cortisone and the Therepeutic Use Exemption (TUE) process, where athletes apply for medical permission to take otherwise banned drugs, are open to abuse.

But the Russian case, for all its complexity due to the disappearance of positive samples, exposed blatant cheating on a scale barely seen before. It was a once-in-a-generation opportunity for sport to demonstrate that it will not tolerate doping.

The lacklustre response tells us everything we need to know.

Stand: 15.01.2019, 21:04