Russia mounted a cloak-and-dagger operation to hide doping at the 2014 Winter Olympics. Now it faces a possible ban from next summer’s Games.
A fan waves the Russian flag over the Olympic rings in Sochi, Russia, 18 February 2014 (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
It is curiously ironic that when I was leading the official news service for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, the most significant news story was going on undetected right under my nose.
The sophisticated tampering of urine samples provided by dozens of the home nation’s athletes, later revealed by a whistle-blower, has dogged international sports and Russian participation in the Olympics ever since.
Now, almost six years later, the repercussions that followed are on the brink of exploding into a complete ban on Russia competing in next year’s Tokyo Summer Olympics and either hosting or taking part in other international sports events.
The biggest crisis in world sports is due to unfold during the next few weeks.
A cloak-and-dagger operation was taking place.
I could hardly have foreseen any of this when I was asked by the Russian organisers of the Sochi Games to be editor-in-chief of their Olympic News Service (ONS).
At the time, I had just retired as Reuters global sports editor after a lengthy career that involved covering 16 successive Summer and Winter Olympics.
The Russians were eager to show their news service would not be a propaganda vehicle. They wanted an experienced and independent foreign journalist to lead a 200-strong team of international reporters and volunteers providing a news service in English to the Olympic media and to all those taking part in the Games.
Unbeknown to any of us on the ONS or to any of the thousands of journalists accredited to the Games, a cloak-and-dagger operation was taking place at the Sochi doping laboratory where urine samples were stored.
Tainted samples were swapped with clean ones.
Russia, it is now known, had put in place a programme of doping its athletes so they would reap a golden haul of medals that would reflect a greater glory on the home nation.
In Sochi, tainted urine samples were swapped in the dead of night, through a small hole in the lab’s wall, with clean ones, taken from the same athletes some time earlier and frozen.
Those involved had devised a method of opening the supposedly tamper-proof seals on the bottles of stored samples, switching the contents and closing them without the seals appearing to have been broken.
To understand why, you have to go back four years to the previous Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010.
Russia’s medal tally there was a mere 15, with just three golds. By the standards of one of the great powers of world sport, that was an almost pitiful total.
In Turin four years earlier, Russia had won eight golds and 22 medals altogether. That was much more in keeping with its traditional position, going back to the days of the Soviet Union when it expected to outperform all its rivals. In Sochi, Russian athletes triumphed, picking up 30 medals, 11 of them gold.
‘The worst case of system failure.’
There had been rumours of extensive doping in Russia for some time, but the most explosive revelations came early in 2016, two years after Sochi, when Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of Russia’s anti-doping agency (RUSADA), turned whistle-blower.
He revealed he had helped develop and distribute banned performance-enhancing drugs to thousands of Russian athletes over the better part of a decade. Rodchenkov fled to the United States, where he is in witness protection.
Two former heads of RUSADA, Nikita Kamaev and Vyacheslav Sinev, died within two weeks of each other shortly after the doping scandal broke, although no connection has been proved.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) launched an investigation into doping in Russia headed by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren. His report said the agency had evidence that hundreds of samples had been tampered with in Sochi and elsewhere, and that Russian authorities and security services were involved.
WADA recommended Russia be banned from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. But the International Olympic Committee, despite a declared zero-tolerance policy to doping, was reluctant to take such drastic action. It left the decision on Russian participation to individual international sports federations.
In the end, most of the Russians due to take part did compete, although the athletics and weightlifting federations imposed bans. At the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games, Russian athletes were not allowed to compete under their national flag but as Olympic Athletes from Russia.
WADA President Craig Reedie recently described the scale of Russian doping as unprecedented. “The worst case of system failure, certainly in my time as President, if not in the entire history of the antidoping movement, has been with Russia,” he said.
The final verdict is near.
Russian suspensions were lifted by WADA when RUSADA agreed to provide data of missing tests. But Russia has again come under threat this year for failing to satisfactorily explain inconsistencies in that data.
On Monday, a WADA committee recommended that Russia should be banned from the Olympics for four years and barred from all world championships for manipulating data retrieved from a tainted Moscow laboratory. The recommendations will be put to WADA’s executive committee meetings in Paris on December 9.
The prospect, then, is for a possible ban on Russia staging international sports events and its competitors taking part in overseas championships. That would include the Russian team being ousted from the Euro 2020 Soccer Championship.
The IOC and sports federations are committed to abide by any ban imposed by WADA, which would leave Russia with just one recourse: an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, likely to be heard by the end of the year.
Almost six years after the Sochi Games, the final verdict on Russian doping is near.
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QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
- Will the fight against doping ever be won, or should sports authorities accept that it will always happen and turn a blind eye to doping in sport?
- When potential sanctions for doping offences threaten the staging of international sports competitions, should the authorities impose milder punishments such as fines rather than bans? And should the level of punishment take into account that it is more problematic to sanction the sporting super powers such as Russia, China and the United States?
- How guilty are individual athletes who are caught up in state-sponsored doping programmes and who may not be fully aware they are being administered performance-enhancing drugs? Should they be sanctioned, for example with lifetime bans, or should the state receive a blanket ban from taking part in specific events for a defined number of years?
Former global sports editor at Reuters, Paul Radford has covered 17 Olympic Games, seven World Cups and numerous world championships in more than 20 sports. He was sports editor for 12 years at the end of a career that included assignments in Germany and Paris. Formerly a consultant to the International Olympic Committee, he served on the IOC’s press commission for 15 years and was editor-in-chief of the official Olympic News service at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.