VICE Sports Q&A: The Reporter Who Broke the Biggest Sports Doping Scandal

In conversation with Hajo Seppelt, the documentarian whose work exposed Russian track and field and might yet bring competitive athletics to its knees.

Nov 12 2015, 5:05pm


Editor's note: Welcome to our new VICE Sports Q and A, where we'll talk to authors, directors and other interesting people about interesting sports things. Think of it as a podcast, only with words on a screen instead of noises in your earbuds.

Last December, Hajo Seppelt, a German investigative journalist and documentarian, broke what would become one of the biggest sports stories of the decade, and could yet become the biggest story in the history of athletics. In his documentary, Geheimsache Doping (or "Top Secret Doping"), which aired last year on German public broadcast network ARD, Seppelt uses the testimony of whistleblowers, hidden camera footage, and mountains of leaked documents to meticulously unravel a vast doping conspiracy inside Russian athletics. In short, the documentary showed that just about every top-level athlete in the Russian athletics system doped, and that the Russian Federation and the Russian anti-doping establishment had been covering it up for years. (You can watch an English language follow-up of the original documentary here.)

After Geheimsache Doping aired, the World Anti-Doping Association launched an independent investigation into the documentary's findings. WADA published a report on Monday that completely corroborates Seppelt's account and, in the process, reveals that the depth of the scandal goes far beyond what's happening in Russia. Earlier this month, French Police raided the headquarters of the International Association of Athletics Federations—track and field's governing body—which is alleged to have been complicit in the Russian scandal.

Following the publication of its report, WADA immediately suspended the Russian anti-doping lab and recommended that the IAAF suspend the All-Russia Athletic Federation from competition, among other things.

Read More: VICE Sports Q&A: "Doped" Director Andrew Muscato

As you can imagine, after uncovering a story of this magnitude, Seppelt doesn't have a lot of time to chat, but I caught up with him on Wednesday morning. We discussed the origins of his documentary, the conditions in German culture and media that give him the latitude to focus so single mindedly on the subject of doping, and what he thinks might happen next.

VICE Sports: How did the documentary come about? When did the idea first crystallize?

Hajo Seppelt: This was in 2014, or maybe at the end of 2013, when I was considering doing some research on Russia, because they had been host of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. I'm a doping research and investigative journalist. We have a doping division at the German television station ARD/WDR, in Cologne. So I'm just a 100 percent doping investigator in journalism, and we thought it might be worthwhile to take a look at the background of one of the most important and most successful sports nations globally.

We did some research in Sochi about Xenon, this gas. Maybe you heard about this story. Russia used it and later on it was also confirmed by scientists as a potentially effective doping substance for athletes. [Through this] background, people realized I was interested in this stuff, and persons from international sports governing bodies confidentially approached me and told me there are some people you might be interested in, in Russia: among them Vitali and Yuliya Stepanova. Both of them are probably the most impressive whistleblowers in the history of sports.

They offered me, from the beginning, a lot of evidence about doping, and the systemic drug abuse in Russia with video and audio and so on.

VS: There's an entire doping division at ARD?

HS: Yes, there's a doping division and a doping research department in Cologne.

VS: How big is it?

HS: It's not very big, but efficient. It's part of the sports department, which has a good infrastructure we can use. We have an annual budget, so I'm allowed to research and investigate worldwide. I travel, and I'm more or less the reporter who's doing it full-time. There are others who do it half-time, and we have some editors around. So, yeah, it's a structure that allows us not only to cover live sports but also to investigate sports.

VS: As an American, it seems like the American public is far less interested in doping stories than Germans. Why are Germans fascinated by this subject?

HS: I wouldn't call it fascinated, but they are interested. We are living in the country of Goethe [laughs]. And, yeah, maybe it sounds a bit funny, but I tell you Germans might be in a way a bit different to other people. We often discuss things that might not get discussed in other countries—not only doping, we have a lot of issues in this country where we have what I would tend to call a democratic structure of discussing. People are interested, in some ways, in a kind of educated level of discussion. And so we are discussing sometimes the background and psychological and economical backgrounds of sports possibly more than in other countries.

So people think [the doping issue] is worthwhile. We have public TV, similar to the BBC. Everyone who has a TV in Germany has to pay a monthly payment. [Editor's note: This public TV tax is fairly high. For example, for my tiny apartment where I have one TV, I pay ARD more than 200 euros a year.] It's a bit different to the United States. In Europe, I would say people trust more [what Americans might call "socialist institutions,"] while in America, you're your own person, and there's a bigger private economical drive in your country.

But I don't have to tell you that [laughs].

VS: No, it's interesting hearing it from another perspective. Obviously the fact that TV is state-funded in Germany gives you a certain editorial freedom that doesn't exist in the United States, where it's based on what the viewers want to see.

HS: Commercials.

VS: Exactly.

HS: I hate it!

VS: It definitely has some drawbacks.

What about the doping scandal that took place in Eastern Germany during Soviet times? Does that remain in the public consciousness and perhaps inform the German interest in this subject?

HS: I would say it is more or less the consensus that [what happened in East Germany] was a crime, and it's known [throughout the country] that this was unacceptable that they administered drugs to minors. There is a clear [understanding] in our country that this was absolutely unacceptable. And so, yeah, we have a lot of discussions about this in Germany in general, and we also have a lot of discussions about drug abuse in general. I covered the [East German] court cases in the 1990s. This was the beginning of my career as a doping journalist. So yes, this is a major issue in Germany.

[ED: For some background on the East German doping scandal we've embedded the 2008 PBS documentary Secrets of the Dead: Doping for Gold, below.]

VS: Were you surprised by the reception the documentary received?

HS: I was. I've been working in journalism for 30 years now. This is the first time in my life I've had this kind of reaction. It was unbelievable for me on Monday, that our work—and it's not only my work, but the work of the whole department—was so important for a worldwide investigation. And it was a worldwide investigation, but it focused on Russia, and it came from the World Anti-Doping Agency. So it's obviously a highly-appreciated contribution in the fight against doping. It makes clear that classic, standardized anti-doping regimes are not as effective and efficient as having whistleblowers—and investigative journalism. [Editor's note: You can read WADA's report here.]

As I always say, sports organizations should not be in charge of doping controls. There are so many conflicts of interest. It obviously doesn't work. You can see in this particular case that the IAAF itself was involved with the former president Lamine Diack and his family.

VS: What do you hope happens now after the publication of WADA's report?

HS: I'm not hoping for anything, because I'm a journalist. But if you ask me about my opinion I would say that the best thing to do is ban Russia, or Russian athletics at least, from the Olympics next year, otherwise they won't learn their lesson. That's what you have to do. You have to change completely the mentality and structure, the people, and the transparency of the system. Otherwise it will never work.

This is very complicated, because you have to change the mind of people in far, far eastern regions of the biggest country in the world. It's not as easy [as you might think]. The problem is not only in Moscow, it's everywhere in Russia, so it will take time. So I believe [Russia] should stay at home next year and not go to the Olympics.

RUSAD has been suspended by WADA. Photo Credit: Maxim Shipenkov, EPA

VS: Do you have faith that such a sanction will occur?

HS: Okay. I'm not very convinced [it will happen]. VTB, a state run bank in Moscow, is a main sponsor of the IAAF. [IAAF President Sebastian] Coe was always very charming to the Russians—at least until Monday. The president of WADA was also very nice and gentle to the Russians. So I don't know if it will happen. You also have to consider it is a real, serious fight, not just against Russian sport alone but also against the whole nation of Russia. It's an attack on Mr. Putin. Never forget that.

So I can imagine they'll suspend Russia for a few months, but I believe they'll let them compete in the Olympics in 2016 if they fulfill at least some of the conditions. But to be honest, I don't think that's the right way.

[Editor's note: The day after my conversation with Seppelt, Vladimir Putin ordered an "open" investigation into doping in Russian sport. The IAAF is expected to announce the suspension of the All-Russia Athletic Federation on Friday. Like Seppelt, many experts believe the federation will be reinstated prior to the Rio Olympics next summer.]