With just more than five months until the Rio Olympics, the World Anti-Doping Agency finds itself in what its director general calls “a fragile time for clean sport worldwide.”
Russia and Kenya are in danger of missing the Olympics — the former after being indefinitely banned after an independent commission uncovered state-sponsored doping in track and field and the latter after it was put on probation for failing to form its own national anti-doping agency.
Already this week, nine Ethiopian runners, including some of the country’s best athletes, are under investigation for doping. In a separate case, Ethiopian-born Swedish runner Abeba Aregaw, the 2013 world champion in the 1,500 meters, tested positive for a banned substance.
To be sure, Russia’s non-compliance with anti-doping codes stands to have the greatest impact on the Summer Games and is prompting calls for more action from sports officials and athletes, who are concerned about integrity in their sports. But these cases and the response from WADA, the International Olympic Committee and international federations loom large with the potential not only to impact the Olympics in Rio but to send a message on how such doping will be treated in the future.
“As an anti-doping community, we’re at a defining moment for the effort,” said Travis Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). “And whether WADA, who is the global watchdog, is going to relegate itself to just another toothless bureaucracy or are we actually gonna fight this battle for clean athletes to win it — that’s the question before us right now. And we have to show leadership and give confidence to the clean athletes of the world that their decision to do it the right way is going to be validated.”
The release of a report from a WADA independent commission found a culture of doping that included coaches providing banned substances to athletes, Russia’s anti-doping agency (RUSADA) tipping off athletes when they’d be tested out of competition and the Moscow laboratory destroying more than 1,400 samples before WADA’s investigators came to visit.
The commission recommended lifetime bans for five runners and five coaches. Russia’s track and field federation was provisionally banned from international competition.
A second report released in January showed corruption of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) with senior officials, including President Lamine Diack, accepting payment for covering up positive drug tests.
The widespread doping in Russian athletics has athletes questioning the system and demanding the commitment to clean sport WADA promises.
“That is huge. We haven’t seen that since East Germany,” said retired U.S. Olympian Sarah Konrad, who competed in cross country skiing and biathlon. “It’s really big. Yeah, it is a crossroads because having that become uncovered, the work the independent commission did and brought forward, that’s great. It’s not great what happened but it’s great that it came to light and that we see it. That gives the world, athletes, officials, everyone the chance to act and say how stop from happening again? And that hasn’t happened.”
Calls for more investigating
Part of that exploration has been calls for further investigation. The U.S. Olympic Committee’s athlete advisory council, led by Konrad, sent a letter to WADA President Craig Reedie and IOC President Thomas Bach in January beseeching them to investigate other Russian sports.
Canadian Beckie Scott, chairwoman of the WADA athlete committee, has also asked for an expanded investigation.
The independent commission report noted that while the commission “expresses no concluded opinion as to other sports in Russia, there is no reason to believe that Athletics is the only sport in Russia to have been affected by the identified systemic failures.”
Konrad said both WADA and the IOC responded to the letter but declined to expand the investigation.
In an interview with USA TODAY Sports last month, Bach said, “We have answered to this letter exactly in this way – that we have to protect the clean athletes and that this also means you have to protect the clean athletes from a general suspicion. … In many countries we had big doping scandals and also there we had to make sure that if you had a doping scandal in one sport that you do not then shed suspicion on every sport.”
Tygart is concerned that Russian athletes continued doping during the commission’s investigation, with athletes testing positive in June, and that statements from Russian officials continue to refute the findings.
The Guardian reported that sport minister Vitaly Mutko said on Russia’s state-run television last month that the findings were “assumptions.”
“So these accusations are of course very made up, because today the Russian federation’s anti-doping services are independent, they are vertically subordinate to Wada,” Mutko said, according to the Guardian report.
Sending a message
Still to be decided is whether Russia will be able to compete in Rio. WADA has been working with RUSADA to regain code compliance since November. Russia’s athletics federation must meet IAAF requirements to be reinstated for international competition, including the Olympics.
UK Anti-Doping announced Monday that it has begun testing Russian athletes. But even that development leaves lingering concerns.
Russian athletes have likely not been tested until recently. Since November they have been unable to compete in international competitions where they could be reliably tested. Even if Russia could come into compliance before August, New Zealand middle-distance runner Nick Willis is concerned athletes could still reap long-term benefits from doping.
Tygart called for strong sanctions for Russia, including missing the Olympics. Athletes who test positive for banned substances typically receive 2- or 4-year bans, so why shouldn’t state-sponsored doping draw comparable penalties, Tygart asks.
“We all want universal inclusion at the Olympic Games, but that can’t come at the expense of clean athletes,” Tygart said.
“To say we’ll take your word despite knowing it’s not worth much and the evidence is what has proven something different that you’ve cleaned it up and now we’ll immediately let you back? Where’s the deterrent message?” he added. “We hold athletes to four years. We’re not willing to hold states that intentionally violate the Olympic values to any consequence. The only consequence is they get to keep all their results. They get to have a period of time where athletes can gain an advantage and then they suddenly can show up and compete at the highest levels again? That’s not a fair system. That’s not a system that those who value the Olympic values buy into.”
Konrad and Willis expressed empathy for clean Russian athletes that could be affected by an umbrella ban of the country. But even the commission’s report was less sympathetic, saying “innocent” athletes in Russia and around the world were harmed by the actions detailed in the report and that they needed to be protected.
Changing the system
Clean athletes are waiting to see how WADA will respond, Tygart said.
Konrad and Willis said they believe WADA wants to do the right thing. The sport is better today than it was when Willis first competed in the Olympics in 2004.
“It might look worse to the public, but from the athletes’ perspective it’s not nearly as bad,” he said. “I think we are heading in a better direction. It’s not the best direction yet, but I have better hope for the next generation of athletes.”
That is likely to include changes in how national anti-doping agencies and WADA work going forward.
The International Swimming Federation (FINA), in partnership with several national anti-doping agencies, announced that it would test the top-10 athletes in each event up to seven times in the lead-up to Rio.
Willis suggests WADA institute a similar plan that would require the top-10 athletes in an event to train in countries with the capability to test them in the lead-up to championships.
Bach has proposed an independent agency under WADA control testing and that doping sanctions be decided by the Court of Arbitration for Sport instead of sport federations.
On Tuesday, the IOC removed itself from doping cases for the Rio Olympics and put a special CAS panel in charge.
While questions of Russia’s participation in the Games will likely remain for the next several months, athletes and anti-doping officials are watching closely for the response in this fragile time.
“It just seemed like the door had opened and there’s a chance for WADA to really step up and really try to make sport hold to the ideal that we as athletes think that it should,” said Konrad.