Special Briefing: What Will Ending Russia’s Doping Ban Mean for Sports?

Special Briefing: What Will Ending Russia’s Doping Ban Mean for Sports?

Bobsleigh racer Alexander Zubkov of the Russia Olympic team carries his country's flag during the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.

SourceRyan Pierse/Getty

Why you should care

Because this is about a lot more than gold medals.

This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.

WHAT TO KNOW

What happened? The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) executive committee voted 9–2 Thursday to lift the three-year suspension on Russia’s anti-doping agency, RUSADA. The Russians had been penalized after evidence of state-sponsored doping was confirmed in November 2015 by an independent report. The suspension was lifted on the advice of WADA’s compliance review panel, which one week ago announced it was satisfied with Russia’s ability to meet the two conditions for reinstatement: publicly acknowledging the government’s role in doping, and providing access to the Moscow lab containing the samples and data that would corroborate the alleged violations. However, these conditions had been recently softened as the result of a June compromise between WADA Director General Olivier Niggli and Russian Sports Minister Pavel Kolobkov. Now Russia must provide access to the lab by Dec. 31.

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Niggli, the director general of WADA, attends a press conference ahead of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games.

Source Chris Graythen/Getty

Why does it matter? With the vote — which saw two committee members, including Vice President Linda Helleland, vote against reinstatement — WADA’s credibility has been called into question by agencies and athletes around the world. “Today we failed the clean athletes of the world,” Helleland said in a statement released Thursday. Now RUSADA is free to test its own athletes, Russia can once again bid to host major international sporting events, and the country’s track and field team moves closer to being declared compliant by the international track federation.

HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT

An internal chasm. Helleland wasn’t the only member of the organization to criticize RUSADA’s reinstatement. When WADA’s compliance review panel issued its recommendation last week, it prompted the resignation of one of its members, Canadian Olympic skier Beckie Scott. In addition, seven members of the WADA Athlete Committee issued a statement decrying their agency’s move. Worth noting: WADA President Craig Reedie’s term is set to expire next year, and Helleland is one of the candidates to replace him.

The whistleblowers. WADA’s controversial saga with Russian doping didn’t just begin. Russian athlete Yulia Stepanova, and her husband Vitaliy, who worked for RUSADA, first wrote to WADA in 2010 alleging a mass doping program. They never heard back, so they secretly recorded conversations with athletes, doctors and officials. After Stepanova was herself banned by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) for doping, she went public, disclosing the scale of Russia’s doping operation on German TV in 2014. In May 2016, Grigory Rodchenkov — a former head of Moscow’s anti-doping laboratory who helped develop the banned performance-enhancing substances used by thousands of Russian Olympians — confirmed WADA’s mass doping conclusions. Before this week’s vote, Rodchenkov wrote in USA Today that reinstatement would be “nothing short of a catastrophe for clean sport.” Now in U.S. witness protection, Rodchenkov was the subject of the Oscar-winning 2017 documentary Icarus.

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Stepanova walks on the track after being injured during the 800-meter race of the European Athletics Championships in 2016.

Source JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty

McLaren vs. Schmid. Two reports with one key difference are at the center of WADA’s decision to reinstate RUSADA: the McLaren Report and the Schmid Report. The former, released in 2016, unequivocally confirmed “the existence of widespread cheating through the use of doping substances,” describing methods like swapping clean urine samples through a hole in a wall. The second report, published in December 2017 by Samuel Schmid, disciplinary commission chair for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), reinforced those findings — but did not implicate either the state or the FSB, Russia’s principal security agency, as having knowledge of the cheating. One of the initial conditions for RUSADA reinstatement was for Russia to publicly accept the findings of the McLaren report; a compromise reached this summer allowed Russia to acknowledge the less condemnatory Schmid report.

Athletes speak out. Athletes and agencies in the U.S., the U.K., Canada and more have lashed out at WADA’s decision. “Frankly, it stinks to high heaven,” U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart said in a statement. Tygart also called for a complete overhaul of WADA’s executive structure. Prior to the vote, the U.K. Anti-Doping Athlete Commission penned a letter to WADA urging the agency to hold fast to the previously established roadmap to reinstatement, which included accepting the McLaren Report and granting access to the Moscow lab. “Do not fail clean sport,” the athletes urged. Curiously, the IOC Athletes’ Commission announced it agreed “in principle” with WADA’s executive committee, but wanted to see a “clear process” and timeline for receiving and verifying the lab data.

What does this mean for Russian athletes? It’s important to note that WADA’s vote reinstated RUSADA, not Russian athletes’ ability to compete under their flag in international competitions. The IAAF has not yet lifted its suspension on Russian athletes. It plans to reevaluate Russia’s status at its council meeting in Monaco in December. The reinstatement of RUSADA was one condition that had to be met. The others are that the Russian Athletics Federation (RUSAF) must pay for the costs the IAAF incurred for the doping scandal and authorities must grant access to the Moscow lab by Dec. 31.

WHAT TO READ

Russia’s Cheating Is Rewarded, by Christine Brennan at USA Today

“Since WADA is in such a ridiculously forgiving mood, why not give Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones and Ben Johnson a big hug and welcome them back too?”

The Independent Commission Report #1, by WADA commission members Richard H. McLaren and Günter Younger

“The coaches are supported in their doping efforts by certain medical professionals. Moreover, it is particularly alarming that there appears to be a collective disregard for the athletes’ current or future state of health.”

WHAT TO WATCH

Trailer for Icarus

“If this is true, it is an unimaginable level of criminality.”

Watch the Netflix trailer from YouTube:

Doping in Sport: ‘I Can’t Be Complacent,’ Says WADA President Sir Craig Reedie

“People have to understand that this is an ongoing and changing situation, every minute of every day.”

Watch on BBC Newsnight from YouTube:

WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER

Everything old is new again. While doping has caused huge scandals in the Olympics and other major sporting events like the Tour de France in recent years, before the year 1960, stimulants among competitive athletes were often considered no big deal. In 1904, American runner Thomas Hicks used a combination of strychnine, egg white and brandy on his way to winning an Olympic gold. Drug testing wasn’t introduced until the 1968 Games — and even now, WADA has reported that testing likely catches only 2 percent of doping athletes.

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