IOC plays it soft on doping, cops flak!

"Protecting clean athletes" should no longer remain a slogan, but a mission. The over-used "zero tolerance" should be removed from the anti-doping lexicon. It has been made into a mockery.

With the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) adamant on not entertaining Russian athletes, star pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva will not be able to take part in Rio.   -  AP

Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko has been banned from the Rio Olympics.   -  AP

Many Olympians, leading National Anti-Doping Organisations (NADOs), the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and hundreds and thousands of fans across the globe expected the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to put a blanket ban on Russia from the Rio Olympics.

With just a few days to go for the Olympics opening, the IOC, however, took the softer option of leaving things to the international federations. An elaborate set of conditions was formulated by the IOC, while passing the buck to the federations, the most important point being the anti-doping record of the athlete concerned, in any sport, the emphasis justifiably on “international tests.”

Russia has said that the majority of the eligible athletes had already undergone tests conducted by the UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) during the past few months, in collaboration with WADA. It is to be seen how many will eventually make it.

Is it practical for all concerned to finish this process within the short time available? That was the first question that came up when the IOC took its much-awaited, long-debated decision.

Has this left the whole ‘eligibility’ question in Rio Olympics in greater confusion than what it had been before the IOC took its decision? That was another question that disturbingly cropped up. Many agreed that it had indeed left quite some confusion that may simply add to the burden of all concerned in Rio, not least of all the Organising Committee.

Athletics mercifully escaped uncertainty simply because it had taken off the blocks well in advance. Athletics it was that provided the Russians with the maximum number of gold medals last time (eight to begin with and reduced to six after doping disqualifications); athletics it had been the past few years that had seen the most-organised doping in Russia.

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) ruled only one athlete (US-based long jumper Darya Klishina) as eligible. Sixty-eight other Russian athletes applied for permission to participate in the Olympics, but the IAAF rejected them all, forcing them to go to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

The Lausanne-based court, the highest appellate tribunal in sport-related disputes, upheld the IAAF’s right to suspend a national federation (Russia) and consequently the exclusion of athletes from that country as per the provisions of eligibility determined by the IAAF. The court was, however, concerned about the conditions framed by the IAAF and the fairness of subjecting the athletes to such conditions within the short time available.

The IAAF, led by its new President, Sebastian Coe, a legend himself in the 1980s in middle-distance running, seemed to have brought off what could have been thought as an impossible ban on a powerful nation till the other day.

The IOC might have helped prevent the “schism” that President Vladimir Putin talked about in the days leading up to the final decision, but it surely let down the anti-doping lobby and the “clean” athletes.

Olympic greats were expectedly disappointed by the IOC decision.

“No, no, you decide we don’t want to. What a cop out,” tweeted Mathew Pinsent, four-time gold medal-winning Olympian rower from Britain.

“A truly strong message for clean sport would have been to ban all those who have been caught cheating,” said world marathon record holder, four-time Olympian and multiple World championships medal winner Paula Radcliffe, a strong anti-doping campaigner.

“IOC is afraid to make the hard decisions required to protect clean athletes and send a strong message. Unfortunate!” tweeted Michael Johnson, triple Olympic gold medal-winning American sprinter and former World record holder in the 200m and 400m.

If you listened to Thomas Bach, IOC President, “protecting the clean athletes” has been one of his predominant themes during this whole crisis involving Russia.

“This is not about expectations, this is about doing justice to clean athletes,” said Bach in a conference call with the media after the IOC Executive Board decision on Russia.

“We are protecting clean athletes because of the high criteria we set for all the Russian athletes.

“This may not please everybody on either side. But the result today is one that is respecting the rules of justice and the right of all the clean athletes.”

Quickly clearing a seven-member Russian tennis team was the International Tennis Federation. Support from Russia came from a majority of the international federations led by wrestling, swimming and gymnastics.

“This is the funeral of athletics”, said Yelena Isinbayeva, the pole-vaulting megastar of Russian athletics, about the CAS decision to uphold the IAAF’s right against 68 Russian athletes including her.

“Now let all these foreign pseudo-clean sportspeople sigh with relief and win their pseudo-gold medals in our absence,” Isinbayeva wrote on Instagram. “They have always feared (our) strength.”

What “strength” Isinbayeva could have been talking about was difficult to understand. True, she happened to be one of the strong Russian contenders to take her third Olympic title in Rio with the then world-leading 4.90m in Cheboksary in June. Her dream now lies shattered.

But is Russia the same force it had been in athletics, say four years ago in London when it took seven gold medals? Or for that matter five years ago in the World Championships in Moscow when it took the same number?

The doping edifice seemed to have cracked up at last year’s World Championships in Beijing when Russia claimed a mere two gold medals to be placed behind eight countries topped by Kenya and Jamaica, with seven gold medals.

The doping scandal had taken a heavy toll of the Russian walkers, all world beaters, Olympic champions and World record holders training under the care of the dubious expert Viktor Chegin in Saransk, Mordovia.

Russia withdrew its entire race-walking team from Beijing. Later Chegin was banned for life for his involvement in systematic doping of walkers, on the recommendation of the IAAF. Athletes like Jared Tallent of Australia, who at last had been awarded the 50km walk gold from London following a Russian disqualification, had been highlighting the ‘Chegin doping regimen” for years without getting the kind of response from international agencies. (In March this year, Sergey Kidyapkin of Russia, who initially was the gold winner in the 50km event in London, was stripped of his medal by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, enabling Tallent to go up.

Despite his enormous reputation as a dope expert, Chegin was a highly-respected walk coach, too. Thus 55 athletes and coaches wrote to President Putin to re-instate him. That did not happen, though.

Let us look at the other Russian gold medallists in London 2012. Ivan Ukhov the high jumper, was the lone male gold medallist for Russia, reaching 2.38m. He does not have anything against him in the doping department and it is unfortunate that he is not there in Rio though he has a qualification mark. With a best of 2.30m, however, and the top six in the season around 2.36-2.41 Ukhov’s chances of retaining his title, had he been present, could have been very remote.

Natalya Antyukh, who took the women’s 400m hurdles gold in London, also has not been involved in a doping controversy. She will be missed, too.

That leaves us with five more names, Maria Savinova (800m), Yulia Zaripova (3000m steeplechase), Anna Chicherova (high jump), Tatyana Lysenko (hammer throw) and Elena Lashmanova (20km walk). All of them have either a doping past or current suspension or have been recommended for suspension.

Savinova was one of the athletes recommended for life-ban by the WADA Independent Commission for her admission of doping in conversation with Yulia Stepanova, the ‘whistleblower’ who secretly recorded it. That decision is yet to be announced by the IAAF.

Zaripova is serving a four-year suspension ending May 2019. Her London result was annulled.

Race-walker Lashmanova ended a two-year doping suspension in February this year. She was reported for competing in Russia before ending her suspension, a charge which the IAAF may not have disposed of yet. She does not have a performance to talk of this season.

High jumper Chicherova had the worst news amidst all the Russian doping scandal, she having a ‘positive’ from Beijing Olympics re-tests. She is provisionally suspended at the moment. The 34-year-old Chicherova had won the bronze in Beijing.

Lysenko was provisionally suspended by the IAAF in April this year. This is her second doping offence if it sticks. There was no mention about the kind of anti-doping rule violation she had committed when the IAAF made the announcement.

So, we can see what kind of strength Russia has had and what could have been its challenge in Rio had the country been allowed to field its athletes. Most of them dopers, even if they were champions in the past. Of course, Isinbayeva who claimed the bronze last time, would have been one of the medal contenders even if she was not the favourite for the gold.

Sergey Shubenko (men’s 110m hurdles) and Mariya Kuchina (women’s high jump) were the world champions in Beijing 2015. Denis Kudryavtsev (men’s 400m hurdles silver and Chicherova (women’s high jump bronze) were the other medal winners for Russia in Beijing. Just four medals in all!

Russian woman javelin thrower Vera Rebrik, with her 67.30m in February this year, heads the season lists. She could have been a strong medal contender in Rio. Woman triple jumper Yeketerina Koneva has slipped from her 2015 best of 15.04 to 14.04 this year!

There are a few other Russians within the top 10 in the world this season. The state-sponsored doping has denied them the chance of competing in the Olympics.

The extent of support that an elaborate doping programme received from state authorities in the Russian scandal has been stunning. The methods used to cover up positive dope tests were simple but effective in many cases. You might wonder why no one else could have tried these out earlier with considerable success.

The Russian doping controversy also proved conclusively that if the State supports doping, then there is very little that any anti-doping agency can do.

Well before marathon runner Liliya Shobukhova had approached WADA, in May, 2014 with details of extortion charges against anti-doping officials of Russia and the top administrators in the IAAF, London’s Mail on Sunday had provided a detailed report about the Russian doping machinery.

In its edition dated July 6, 2013 the paper reported that the Moscow WADA-accredited laboratory director Grigory Rodchenkov was engaged in selling drugs and covering up positive tests, that he was arrested in 2011 and released without a charge being framed and that he was back in charge of the laboratory.

The paper reported that the athletes were forced to follow the system and pay up or otherwise would be shown to have tested positive. One former athlete told the correspondents that plans were afoot to top the medals table in Sochi through doping.

Neither WADA nor the International Olympic Committee (IOC) followed up on the report. That was a huge mistake.

The investigations by WADA’s Independent Commission headed by its former president Richard Pound and the latest report by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren have proved that the Mail on Sunday report was correct.

What actually set in motion the setting up of the Pound Commission was an expose by German television channel ARD, “Top Secret Doping: How Russia makes its winners,” that was aired in December 2014. In August 2015, ARD, led by its investigative journalist Hajo Seppelt, and the Sunday Times brought out another sensational story, “Doping, Top Secret: The Shadowy world of athletics,” that prompted WADA to ask its commission to include the latest revelations also in its ambit of investigations.

The ARD-Sunday Times report analysed leaked data from 12,000 blood tests belonging to around 5000 athletes and accused the IAAF of not acting on the tell-tale signs of variations in blood values of Russian, Kenyan and several other countries’ athletes.

In November 2015 the French Police charged the former IAAF president, Lamine Diack and others on corruption charges. The same month the IAAF suspended the Russian athletics federation (ARAF) following the WADA commission report that confirmed systematic, state-sponsored doping that was going on in Russia. That suspension remained when it was realised that Russia had not done enough to meet the conditions laid down by the IAAF to come back. In June this year, following the report of its Task Force on the onground reality in Russia, the IAAF Council voted to keep Russia out, leaving a small window open for “clean” athletes to compete in Rio.

The first ARD investigation was triggered by Stepanova, an 800m runner, who was once involved in a doping case and who risked her life, with her husband Vitaliy Stepanov, to expose the corrupt Russian system. The couple had to escape Russia and move into Germany and later to the US in order to avoid recriminations and even threat to life.

The amount of information the Stepanovs provided to WADA and the media proved crucial in the demolition of the Russian doping apparatus. Stepanova was cleared by the IAAF as a “neutral” athlete to compete in international meets including the Olympics provided the organisers of the meet had provisions to allow her.

The IOC President, Bach, however, stuck to his argument that only National Olympic Committees could enter athletes in Olympics. The IOC eventually rejected her entry on the ground that she had tested positive once in her career and the IOC having decided not to allow any Russian with a doping past, irrespective of having served a suspension, it was impossible for it to allow her. The couple was instead given an invitation to attend the Olympics.

The IOC decision on Stepanova came in for severe criticism from all quarters. “Whistleblowers” would in future hesitate to come forward risking lives and their careers.

On a different plane, the IOC decision to stop past dopers will also come under scrutiny in the coming days. It tried to extend an Olympic ban beyond the stipulated period in the past, but met with rejection at the CAS. The latest decision will mean the IOC will have one rule for everyone except the Russians.

How can Justin Gatlin, a two-time dope offender, be allowed to compete in the Olympics when Isinbayeva, who had never tested positive in her career be denied, is a question that sounds logical and relevant.

In all these fast-moving developments it had become clear that the authorities had failed in the first instance, leading to a situation where the rot had spread right through Russian sports. But for the “whistleblowers” and the media no one might have come to know of the bribery and extortion practices indulged in by the very top hierarchy in the IAAF or the state-supported well-organised doping establishment in Russia.

Was the Russian doping apparatus comparable to the GDR doping system from the 1960s through to the 1980s? Many observers tended to argue that it was worse. The GDR doping system that collapsed in the wake of the reunification of Germany in 1990 left a trail of abnormalities among East German athletes.

The Russian system has denied many a “clean” athlete their moment of glory in the Olympics and elsewhere through the years; it has made a complete mockery of the anti-doping efforts of the IOC, international federations and the WADA. It denied its own athletes legitimate ways of winning and possibly might have endangered their health.

An incidental benefit from the Russian episode may well be a better-organised anti-doping structure as mooted by the IOC under WADA. This may yet take a couple of years, but it can benefit from the Russian modus operandi explained in great detail by the discredited Moscow lab director, Grigory Rodchenkov.

Rodchenkov told the New York Times last May that he provided a cocktail of banned drugs to athletes, to be rinsed down with a peg of Chivas (Vermouth for women) and also ensured that they wouldn’t be caught. In the normal course Rodchenkov would have been pilloried as a corrupt official in a system that produced dopers by the hundreds. But today he is being projected as the man who deserves a pat for exposing an elaborate, near-foolproof state-sponsored doping!

Going by Rodchenkov’s account, the Sochi laboratory during the 2014 Winter Olympics had a mouse hole through which samples of Russian athletes were passed onto another room to be opened and filled with “clean urine”. The operation was aided by the Russian security agency FSB.

Richard McLaren, the one-man commission appointed by WADA to look into the New York Times allegations, called it the “sample swapping methodology” while describing the Moscow lab trick as “disappearing positive methodology”.

It was determined by McLaren’s team that at least 643 ‘positive’ cases between 2012 and 2015 were reported as ‘negative’ by the Moscow laboratory. This included samples across a range of sports. Athletics (139) and weightlifting (117) provided the maximum offenders.

McLaren’s excellent effort to expose the ‘disease’ that had spread right through almost all Olympic sports, negated the contention of the IOC chief that you don’t penalise a badminton player for an offence committed by a winter Olympian.

Rodchenko admitted that he destroyed 1417 urine samples in order to prevent the WADA team taking them away since a large number of positive results were recorded as ‘negative.’ There was no stipulation for a lab to keep a sample for more than 90 days in case of a ‘negative’ report.

Still 37 samples were left that were actually ‘positive,’ but were reported as ‘negative’. According to the McLaren report, the Russian Deputy Minister, Yuri Nagornykh, who was at the centre of all state-directed efforts in the massive doping scam, called for FSB experts to remove the caps of the bottles and fill up with ‘clean’ urine.

McLaren also stated that there was no way Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko would not have known what had been going on. Today Mutko is barred from attending the Rio Games, any Russian having a doping past is also barred. Mutko may get into further trouble in his role in the Moscow World Cup Football organising committee in 2018 as McLaren has been allowed to complete his investigations.

The Russian episode showed up not only deficiencies in the urine sample bottle, but also in the system. Purely government-controlled anti-doping agencies can only be expected to cover up for their athletes since sport is associated often in many countries with national identity, honour and glory. No one believes, whether in WADA, International Federations or the IOC, or among the media, that this level of state-supported doping could be happening only in Russia.

This level of sophistication yes perhaps, but not the kind of support. There has to be an all-out effort to unearth other doping systems around the world.

When medal winners stand to gain substantial financial rewards — as they do in India for example — it becomes difficult to eradicate corruption from the system.

WADA, entrusted with the task of revamping the anti-doping machinery by the IOC, in a new role as the sole testing agency across the world, has to devise methods to prevent the kind of manipulations that take place at the national level.

It is clear that even if WADA becomes the international testing agency in all sports, NADOs will have to continue to play major roles at the national level. Loopholes have to be plugged at that level. And of course WADA will need substantial increase in funding.

Where out-of-competition testing is minimal, say in Jamaica, Kenya etc, where ‘wherabouts’-based testing has just got into its stride and could yet be ineffective, say in India, WADA will need to strike hard. It will also need to focus more attention towards all the former Soviet Republics where national-level testing is negligent.

“Protecting clean athletes” should no longer remain a slogan, but a mission. The over-used “zero tolerance” should be removed from the anti-doping lexicon. It has been made into a mockery.