Each day, it seems, there is a new doping scandal sullying the sports world. Call it an epidemic.
State-sponsored doping in Russia. Cheating medalists at the Sochi Olympics, where urine samples were switched through hidden holes in a wall. Whistleblowers fearing for their lives. Testing labs shut down in Moscow, Beijing, Lisbon and Bloemfontein, South Africa. Chinese swimmers taking steroids. Positive retests from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.
Just when clean athletes thought they were winning the war against performance-enhancing drugs, they find they are back at the starting line.
How fair can the competition be at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in August?
“I have no confidence that I will be competing on a level playing field in Rio,” South African swimmer and seven-time Olympic medalist Kirsty Coventry wrote to the World Anti-Doping Agency.
There have been major victories against the con artists of sport, such as the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s bust of Lance Armstrong. WADA has implemented reforms.
But then we find out Russia has been systematically doping its athletes since — well, maybe since the chilling days of the Soviet and East German master plans to dominate sports.
“From the glass-half-empty view, it’s discouraging so much doping is still going on even though we’re better at catching cheaters,” Richard Pound said by phone from Montreal. Pound is the founding chairman of WADA, International Olympic Committee member and tireless advocate for clean competition.
“From the half-full view, each athlete removed is a step forward and encourages more people to report the truth, which increases the deterrent effect. Where we need progress is in the protection of whistleblowers.”
A WADA commission will investigate allegations on CBS’ 60 Minutes and in the New York Times about fraud in Russia.
Grigory Rodchenkov, former head of Russia’s anti-doping agency who fled to Los Angeles with the help of filmmaker who is telling his story, said the Sochi lab was the site of urine-sample sabotage in which tainted samples were replaced by clean ones… and assisted by Russian state security agents.
IOC President Thomas Bach called the scheme an “unimaginable level of criminality.”
Russian track and field whistleblowers Vitaly and Yuliya Stepanov, who also moved to the U.S. out of fear of reprisals, first talked to German network ARD, which aired two exposes last year. They told “60 Minutes” Vitaly sent 200 emails and 50 letters to WADA over the past four years, but WADA replied that it lacked authority to investigate.
In Kenya there have been 40 positive tests since 2012 and its anti-doping agency was declared noncompliant. But Kenya will be allowed to compete in Rio, although it remains on an international athletics federation (IAAF) “monitoring list.”
From Switzerland, the IOC announced that reanalysis of samples from 2008 show 31 athletes in six sports from 12 countries tested positive and could be barred from Rio. More are expected after 250 retests from the 2012 Olympics aimed at athletes planning to go to Rio. The IOC stores samples for 10 years so they can be retested with updated methods and athletes can be retroactively disqualified.
In Brooklyn, the U.S. Attorney’s office — the same one investigating FIFA corruption — has begun a probe of Russian doping, according to The New York Times.
As if the Rio Games didn’t have enough problems with the country in a recession, President Dilma Rousseff impeached, incomplete infrastructure projects, horrid pollution and sewage runoff in Guanabara Bay where athletes will compete, security worries and a worsening Zika virus crisis, now absent stars could deflate the show.
The big question is what to do about Russia, which was suspended from athletics competition by the IAAF in November following a WADA report confirming state-sponsored doping, coverups, blackmail, surveillance bugs and bribes. Rodchenkov said he destroyed 1,417 samples to impede WADA.
IAAF chief Sebastian Coe will hear from a task force June 17 and decide whether to allow Russian track and field into the Olympics. However, the IAAF itself faces a corruption mess following the arrest of former chief Lamine Diack, and his son is connected to bribery allegations brewing over Japan’s winning 2020 bid.
The integrity of the IOC, WADA and IAAF is on the line. Russian athletes who doped have benefitted physically and will continue to benefit for months. Although the political pressure to pardon Russia will be immense, its track and field team should be banned from Rio.
Whether the nation’s entire team should stay home will be clearer after the WADA investigation, but it is hard to believe that the doping system hasn’t infected all sports in Russia, summer and winter.
“If it’s that widespread, the IOC’s feet will be put to the fire,” Pound said. “Do you have to send a message?”
Beckie Scott — chair of the WADA athlete committee, former Canadian cross country skier whose 2002 bronze medal was elevated to gold when the two Russians who finished ahead of her tested positive — says yes.
If Russia gets a pass, ethical athletes stop believing that winning clean is even worth the effort.