Russia’s Whistleblowers Are the Real Losers at the Rio Olympics

Craig Reedie of WADA. Credit: Andy Miah/Flickr CC-BY-SA 2.0

Craig Reedie of WADA. Credit: Andy Miah/Flickr CC-BY-SA 2.0

The Internet is full of ‘You had one job’ memes. It’s unlikely that the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) bungling on Sunday would make it to the list but if it does, it would not be an inaccurate statement. As it stands, Russia will be a part of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics but its arrival will be messy. Not exactly the best preparation for the greatest sporting event on the planet.

The International Federations (IF) of their respective sports have now been given the mandate to decide who goes and who does not make the trip to Rio. Eleven days to the opening ceremony is hardly adequate time to set up the procedure, let alone carry out due diligence in order to ensure only the ‘clean’ athletes go through. No wonder the International Tennis Federation (ITF) took less than two hours to clear all of the seven Russian tennis players. It’s too much work and too less time to do it. There is nothing to suggest the players in question are guilty but the ITF cannot have possibly determined that in the given time.

In fairness, the IFs should not be forced to make this decision. In the recent past, the IOC has lobbied to completely distance the IF’s from the anti-doping process. But faced with a political maelstrom, the IOC has chosen to take evasive action. If you do not do anything, there is little that you can be accused of. At least in the short-term.

However, the IOC has unwittingly opened a can of worms for itself by deciding that those Russian athletes who have served a doping ban in the past will not be eligible for participation in Rio. Clearly, this is a mockery of justice. Cheats should not continue to suffer punishment after they have served their sentence. It’s a troubling world-view.

Furthermore, this gives Russia another reason to feel that the controversy is a consequence of political machinations. Athletes from other countries like the USA’s Justin Gatlin, who is the favourite for the men’s 100 metre race, will be clear to participate despite serving bans twice in the past.

This is also a legally unsustainable move by the IOC. In 2011, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) had ruled that no athlete could be denied participation in the Olympics once his or her punishment was served. If Russia is free to participate in Rio, why should athletes who have done their time suffer? To put it simply, it’s a mess.

This is, however, just the tip of the iceberg. Why did things become so bad that, with less than a fortnight to go, it’s unclear which athletes would represent Russia at the biggest sporting spectacle in the world? That’s what you get when you combine incredible administrative mismanagement with a state-instituted doping regime.

The genesis of a scandal

Back in 2010, a disappointing performance at the Vancouver Winter Games had left the Russian establishment embarrassed. With only four years to go for the Sochi edition, the government decided something needed to be done. Two independent investigations under the auspices of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and a 2014 report by journalist Hajo Seppelt for the German broadcaster ARD have revealed the doping programme which followed.

The first of the WADA investigations that produced a damning report last November was a result of the ARD documentary. The WADA report found that Russia had damaged the integrity of international competitions in the aftermath of the 2010 Vancouver Games. Former WADA president Dick Pound, who led the investigation, recommended that Russian athletes should not be allowed to compete in Rio.

Last week, even worse news was to follow. A review led by a Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren discovered that the Russian government, security and sporting authorities were involved in hiding cases of mass doping involving the country’s athletes at the Sochi Games. It was the kind of institutionalised programme that had not been replicated since the one by East Germany. The McLaren report also supported Russian doctor Grigory Rodchenkov’s assertion that urine samples were swapped during the Sochi Winter Olympics to protect the host’s athletes.

These reports provide staggering evidence of a state-run doping programme that compromised international sport. Certainly, Russian athletes are not the only ones who cheat the system. But the manner in which the rules have been subverted call for a strict action. However, the IOC’s economic interests and the current president, Thomas Bach’s proclivity for a complacent approach have ensured a landmark decision has not been taken. Perhaps, banning Russia would have been a step too far. But then, when do you ban a country from participating in the Olympics? The evidence on ground suggests that the Russians did not even have a second of their time for the Olympic movement. Olympism lies in tatters.

As a New York Times report showed, the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) is heavily involved with the government. The ROC’s president Alexander Zhukov is part of the Vladimir Putin set-up, in addition to other prominent names on the body’s executive committee. The next time someone tells you sports and politics don’t mix, try not to explode with anger.

However, it is not just the IOC that has passed on its responsibilities. Despite sanctioning reports that exposed the rot in Russia, WADA was forced to do so only after pressure from journalists and anti-doping activists. Its conduct under the current president Craig Reedie is worthy of scrutiny.

Darya Vitalyevna Pishchalnikova London 2012. Credit: Wikimedia

Darya Vitalyevna Pishchalnikova London 2012. Credit: Wikimedia

Arguably WADA’s biggest misstep occurred in 2012 when Russian discus thrower Darya Pishchalnikova sent a mail to demonstrate her interest in blowing the whistle over her country’s doping programme. Like countless Russian athletes, she had been exploited by the regime to bring ‘glory’ to the nation. WADA, however, hid behind the excuse of a limited mandate and forwarded her email to the same Russian authorities who were accused of carrying the programme out. Four months later, she was banned for 10 years by her country’s track and field federation.

Pishchalnikova had named Dr Rodchenkov, who later exposed the doping scandal at the Sochi Games, in her mail but the correspondence did not see the light in the WADA report that came out last November. Another email might explain that.

WADA president Reedie had mailed Natalya Zhelanova, appointed by sports minister Vitaly Mutko to handle the doping controversy, in April 2015 to assure her that the Dick Pound-led investigation would not turn unfavourably for Russia.

“On a personal level I value the relationship I have with minister Mutko, and I shall be grateful if you will inform him that there is no intention in WADA to do anything to affect that relationship,” wrote the president, as revealed by the Daily Mail. As we see now, Reedie was unable to ensure that. Russia came out with a blusterous defence, accusing the US of running a proxy campaign to defame its old enemy. With no less than $2 million pledged annually by the US government to WADA, it was an easy argument to make. After all, the global agency receives its funds in equal measure from sports bodies and governments and the US dispensation is its biggest benefactor after the IOC.

Conflicts of interest

However, this is not just a one-way street. According to the aforementioned NYT report, Russia has given a surplus $1.14 million to WADA in addition to its annual grant in the last three years. The anti-doping agency has given no reason for the bump in payment since Reedie became president. This has to evoke suspicion, even though Reedie now admits he should have done more. The world, at large, believes the same.

It’s curious as well that Reedie continues to serve as the IOC’s vice-president. This creates a potential for conflict of interest. It’s questionable whether Reedie would be inclined to act in a case that damages the image of the Olympic movement. The economic fall-out is potentially severe. Under his leadership, it’s unlikely that WADA would pursue an aggressive strategy to combat doping. As he told the NYT in June, “We’re not going to turn to people and say, ‘These are the rules; obey them.” Baffling, to say the least.

One hopes Reedie and his colleagues display a more reasonable stance towards whistleblowers but don’t bet on it. When the IOC announced its decision on Sunday, there was one crucial bit of information. Yuliya Stepanova will not run the women’s 800 metre race in Rio. For she cannot compete under a neutral flag owing to her past case of doping, the IOC decreed.

Yulia Stepanova of Russia. Credit: REUTERS/Michael Kooren

Yulia Stepanova of Russia. Credit: REUTERS/Michael Kooren

Stepanova and her husband Vitaly Stepanov had revealed the extent of the Russian doping programme to WADA, risking their lives in the process. Stepanov had worked at the Russian anti-doping agency; Yuliya had been been forced to cheat by the regime and subsequently suspended for two years in 2013. Thereafter, she proceeded to record videos of her compatriots to out the conspiracy while Vitaly sent over 200 mails to WADA detailing the issue in its full breadth. When the anti-doping agency revealed its reluctance to investigate the claims, the couple got in touch with the media to share the information. They left Russia before the expose came out and were last known to be living in an undisclosed location in the US.

It takes courage to stand up and do the right thing. Probably, the IOC does not understand that – if we were to take its latest decision as evidence. The governing body prioritised its economic and political interests on Sunday when it passed the buck; the least it could have done is honour those who helped to reveal one of the biggest sporting conspiracies in history. To further cheapen the couple’s brave endeavour, the IOC announced that they will be welcome as guests in Rio. The bad taste in the mouth makes your tongue burn.

To ban Russia or not was a difficult decision. Either way, the IOC was not going to win. This is the result of years of ignoring people who have strived to out a sophisticated regime that prioritised cheating. The question of doping is a philosophical quandary but the IOC did not have to consider that while making the decision. The question really was – how much is too much? Clearly, the IOC believes, institutionalised cheating is not enough. One wonders which level of monstrosity would earn you a ban. It’s a tough thing to achieve, like a gold medal at the Olympics.

So, Russia can participate in Rio because it brings gifts that are too valuable to lose for the Olympic movement. The Stepanovas, like other whistleblowers, are not welcome. To be a guest at the funeral of your dreams is not exactly the best honour to receive. The Rio Games will feature athletes who may have benefitted from being party to a doping regime. Yuliya Stepanova, on the other hand, will not be allowed to compete with them for she spoke the truth. If she had competed as a ‘clean’ athlete, she may not have won anyway. But that scenario is of little importance now. Stepanova has lost already.