7 Facts About Doping And The Russian Situation

Earlier this morning Sergej Litvinov was informed by the IAAF that his application for exceptional eligibility to compete at the 2016 Olympics was declined along with 66 other athletes. (The rejection did not address all of the grounds for exception raised in Litvinov’s 13-page application, and we are in further communication with them to clarify these points.) In reading through the decision, some initial social media reactions, and media reports it is clear that the big picture is being overlooked. With that in mind, I’ve put together a primer on the topic that helps put the Russia doping issue in context.

Related content: Read Sergej Litvinov’s open letter to the IAAF on doping and the Russian situation.

1 – Russia has a doping problem.

I don’t think anyone can doubt this. If you do, just read the statistics which show Russia has more positive tests than any other country in the world. And those are just the positives. Read the New York Times report on how the Russians help their athletes evade effective doping controls at the 2014 Winter Olympics. Or the evidence of corruption in the WADA Report from last November. Or watch any of Hajo Seppelt’s work on the topic.

The reason there is such a problem is not just that athletes choose to cheat, but that the entire sports culture promotes this. In speaking with many athletes and coaches from Russia and other former Soviet countries, the problems are structural: there is a win-at-all-costs mindset that leads people to think you cannot reach a world class level clean. Many coaches and athletes grew up thinking that the performances required even to qualify for international meets are not possible clean. When this mindset permeates it is hard to see what is possible clean and you are bound to have doping on a grand scale.

2 – There are clean athletes in Russia.

That being said, with every rule there is an exception. It is dangerous to group people together without looking at each individual situation. We hear stories about how Russia helped its athletes cheat and assume this was the case for all athletes. But we forget that many athletes in Russia are subject to frequent testing by outside agencies, such as the IAAF. Or that many athletes elect to compete regularly outside of the country rather than simply hiding inside the country’s borders. Some athletes, like Litvinov, even asked for additional tests.

One of the foundations of the rule of law is that someone is innocent until proven guilty. The IAAF has upended this centuries old tradition with their newest rules and it causes us to make assumptions without looking at the facts. Sergej has presented his story on this site and it is very convincing. I am sure other athletes have similar stories. Yet the IAAF has said it is not enough. They have essentially said there is no way he can prove his innocence. For example, in Litvinov’s rejection letter the IAAF pointed to Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong and stated that “negative test results in and of themselves unfortunately are no guarantee that an athlete is not doping.” This is certainly true, but when the IAAF conducts many of these tests you would think that at least they would trust those. Instead they force athletes to prove their innocence without giving them any means to do so.

There are clean Russians, but @iaaforg has made it impossible for them to prove their case. Share on X

3 – Like it or not, there will be Russians in Rio.

We can argue all we want about whether Russian athletes should be in Rio, but the fact is at least some will be there. A few weeks ago the IAAF reinstated Russian 800-meter runner Yulia Stepanova. Darya Klishina was approved today. And the Russian Olympic Committee is fighting the ban on the Russian team through the Court of Arbitration for Sport with a final decision expected on July 21. In all likelihood, the IAAF will be forced to accept entries from the remaining Russian Athletes because they did not follow the rules in banning Russian athletes. While technically athletes were not banned for doping (the Russian federation was banned and athletes cannot compete if they are not a member of a federation in good standing), that is effectively what happened and means the WADA Code needs to be followed in such cases. The IAAF has agreed to the WADA Code so they are limited in adding their own doping rules. In addition, Russian athletes were deemed guilty by association and banned without an open and transparent appeal process, creating due process issues. The burden of proof was not just shifted to the athletes, but set impossibly high. The IAAF then did not follow its own poorly-drafted guidelines. These are just some of the procedural issues which I believe will lead the CAS to let many more Russian athletes in Rio.

4 – Russia is not the only country with a doping problem.

Russia may be the only track and field team banned from Olympics, but it is hardly the only country with a doping problem. As a whole, Russia has lead the world in doping positives, but in track and field recent analysis has shown Turkey actually had more positives in our sport. Yet Turkey was not banned after scandals at the European Team Championships in 2013 and the suspension of 31 athletes just before the 2013 World Championships. Many other countries are also having issues like Turkey, including Belarus, Ukraine, Morocco, Kenya, Ethiopia, Azerbaijan are more. Despite the IAAF acknowledging this, only Russia is banned. And while there are no allegations of state-sponsored doping in the US, but with the amount of ties the country’s biggest sponsor has to doping you could make a good case for corporate-sponsored doping. At the very least it is corporate-enabled doping. The win-at-all-costs mindset starts with money, and if the biggest sponsor is unwilling to take a big stand against doping it will be hard to move forward.

The Russian athletics team is also not the only Russian sport with an issue. Russian weightlifting, rowers, winter sports, and the other sports have documented doping issues but not facing an Olympic ban. Only Russia track and field is fully excluded.

5 – The IAAF is as much to blame as Russia.

The IAAF likes to put the spotlight on Russia. If so many countries have major doping issues, perhaps the problem is with how the sport as a whole is run and not just the individual countries. It is not just that the IAAF did nothing. It is that they were the most active enabler allowing doping to reach its current level. The first event that started this case was corruption at the IAAF. And when you look back you see that the IAAF has a rap sheet longer than the countries involved:

  • The former president of the IAAF, Lamine Diack, is under criminal investigation in France and is alleged to have received more than $1 million in bribes. The IOC ethics commission provisionally suspended him before he resigned. Despite this, no action has been taken against him by the IAAF.
  • Papa Massata Diack, the son of former President Diack and also a former consultant for the IAAF, has been banned for life from the sport.
  • Nick Davies, who served in various roles for the IAAF (including chief of staff for current President Sebastian Coe, the former deputy secretary general, and communications director) was suspended for six months from the sport. An investigation is ongiong.
  • Valentin Balakhnichev, the treasurer of the IAAF, has been banned for life from the sport.
  • Gabriel Dolle, the former head of anti-doping at IAAF, has been banned for five years from the sport.
  • Pierre-Yves Garnier, former IAAF medical director, was suspended from the sport for six months.
  • Lane Boulter-Davies, formerly of the IAAF anti-doping department, was suspended from the sport for six months.
  • The IAAF points out all the time that RUSADA had issues, but they have also admitted their own testing was ineffective. In the rejection letter to Litvinov they wrote that “that no assurance at all can be taken . . . from the drug testing that the IAAF conducted in Russia.”
With so many IAAF connections to doping scandals, why was the IAAF not banned along with Russia? Share on X The sad state of our sport: The IAAF has admitted they have no faith in their own drug testing. Share on X

And the list goes on. Yet, unlike Russia, the IAAF has not been banned. The IAAF has tried to spin the troubles as the actions of rogue agents, but when so many people are involved it sure looks like a systemic failure and makes you wonder whether everyone else was just out of touch or also knew something fishy was going on.

6 – With or without the Russians, Rio will not be clean.

If the entire Russian team will get to compete in Rio, I am sure the team will include some athletes with a doping history. After all, Stepanova has already admitted to and previously served a doping suspension herself. But even if Russia is excluded, we are fooling ourself if we think Rio will be clean. And, again, the IAAF and WADA are as much to blame for this as the athletes.

As shown above, many countries have severe doping issues. If the IAAF wanted to truly fix doping you think they would take a similar “zero tolerance” strategy against all doping issues. So why is Russia banned, but not other countries? That’s a great question that I cannot answer. My opinion is that it is because the IAAF is more concerned with fighting the battle of public relations than fighting the battle on doping. Russia is the only country in the media spotlight, and therefore Russia is the only country in the IAAF’s sights. Want evidence that the IAAF is more focused on perception than action: after Sebastian Coe was elected President who did he appoint as his chief of staff? The former IAAF head of communications Nick Davies. Davies was later suspended by the IAAF for his role in the Russia doping affair which included, among many other more severe transgressions, attempts to delay the release of suspensions in order to minimize the media exposure of doping in 2013.

The IAAF is more concerned with battling their public relations issues than battling doping. Share on X

And if you look deeper at the current Russian issue, the IAAF is still more active on the public relations front than the anti-doping front. On the outside they banned Russia, but then did nothing to help put in effective doping controls and even told Litvinov that the banned Russia anti-doping association would be responsible for his testing going forward. At last week’s European Championships much was written about how the start numbers said, “I Run clean.” But surely a dirty athlete is at the meet wearing this start number too. It does nothing to fix doping; it only attempts to minimize the public’s perception of doping in our sport. If the Tour de France tried this we would all laugh. Unfortunately many people in our sport are too blind to see the irony.

7 – Doping cannot be eradicated overnight.

It took countries like Germany and America decades to fix a culture of doping, and the issue still lingers. Yet the IAAF asked Russia to essentially do it on their own in nine months and then was surprised when progress was too slow. There will always be cheaters, but we need to create a culture where these are the exceptions, not the rule. This takes time. In order for anti-doping initiatives to work they need to be more realistic in their timelines. They need to focus on changing the culture, rather than minimizing negative PR. And the IAAF and WADA need to be more active in their anti-doping efforts. Russia has shown that, left to its own devices, it is not ready for major change. So why do we give them so much authority in implementing a solution?

Athletes are also beginning to realize that it is not just Russia that is the problem, but the IAAF. At the US Olympic Trials 800-meter runner Alysia Montaño spoke up about it. Montano has missed out on the podium many times in her career to athletes later charged with doping offenses. After falling in the 800-meter final she was simply fed up with the sport and spoke out at the press conference, calling the IAAF corrupt and noting that the issue is larger than Russia. She is correct, but the next day Sebastian Coe responded that athletes need to complain less and do more to help. Essentially Coe is asking athletes to clean up his mess for him. If the IAAf had been doing things correctly for the past 50 years Montaño would have won those medals outright. The IAAF failed her. She has every right to speak up about it without criticism from Coe.

And while athletes do need to help in this fight, now is not the time for Coe and the IAAF to pass the buck. It is easy for us to say athletes should blow the whistle, but how easy is it for an athlete when they live in an authoritarian state where those who speak up are jailed or simply go “missing.” And the sport’s track record for whistleblowers is not good. Olympic discus medalist Darya Pishchalnikova reached out to WADA several years ago, but WADA just turned her information over to the Russians. WADA says they did not have authority to investigate at that time, but did that require them to turn the information over to the people involved in the conspiracy? It would be like turning a snitch over to a mob boss. It threatened the life of an athlete and is inexcusable. Before Coe calls out for more whistleblowers he needs to ensure that the system is set up to handle whistleblowing first. The only system that has proven itself capable is named Hajo Seppelt.

Whistleblowing is just like the rest of the doping topic: the change needs to start with the IAAF before we have any hope of moving forward. We need fewer press releases, fewer media interviews, fewer anti-doping summits, and more action.

4 replies
  1. Barry Irwin
    Barry Irwin says:

    Very interesting, but I think the main point that needs to be made right now is that a strong signal needs to be sent to Russia and this has been achieved. if the line can be held.

    • Martin Bingisser
      Martin Bingisser says:

      This is not a strong signal. It is an inconsistent signal. If the IAAF were really zero tolerance on all countries with doping, that would be one thing. But Russia is not getting this signal as they see it as just politically motivated since other countries with as many or more issues have no sanctions.

  2. Joe
    Joe says:

    This was one of the best articles I’ve read regarding the Russian doping situation. Extremely well thought-out and reasoned. Everything you’ve seen written about this crisis takes the negative angle and places the blame completely on Russia. This was the first time somebody actually looked at the broader reasons for the problem and gave an unbiased opinion that, really, it’s not entirely Russia’s fault. Hopefully it makes some people rethink their stance. Because I’ve agreed with you all along. There are definitely clean Russians, and this guilt by association is inherently unfair. I also agree that the CAS will probably allow a handful of Russians to compete in Rio. Which they should. Because, as you said, what happened to innocent until proven guilty?

  3. Nick
    Nick says:

    Excellent article. The entire affair is an admission of failure by the IAAF, WADA, et al, and a spineless attempt at PR. They have tests that they know are ineffective, yet they continue to subject athletes to testing on what premise? To catch the stupider ones?

    This whole affair has caused me to lose any last shred of interest I have in any of the organized mega-events, the Olympics chief among them. I’ll also end my support for and membership in equally corrupt enterprises, like USATF.

    To Hell with the whole lot.


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