Russia Track and Field Ban For Doping Extended Through the Olympics: What It All Means

The Who, What, When, Where, Why, How, and Which of the whole Russian doping mess.

Jun 17 2016, 5:32pm


On Friday, track and field's global governing body upheld its ban on Russia's team for the Rio Olympics, continuing a suspension from international competitions that was imposed last November following a report by a World Anti-Doping Agency commission that alleged state-sponsored performance-enhancing drug use, corruption and cover-ups in Russian track and field.

What does this mean? What happens next? Glad you asked.

What did Russia Track and Field do, exactly?

Russian anti-doping experts and members of the nation's intelligence community worked together to secretly swap out the urine samples of athletes using performance-enhancing drugs with clean ones. Athletes would provide clean samples before beginning their doping regimen, which they stopped weeks before testing was to take place to avoid detection. If they still failed tests, Russian officials then managed to compromise the tamper-proof bottles containing their incriminating samples, bottles used by most international competitions, and replace the tainted urine.

Russia's former anti-doping lab director, Grigory Rodchenkov, told the New York Times that "for hours each night, they worked in a shadow laboratory lit by a single lamp, passing bottles of urine through a hand-size hole in the wall, to be ready for testing the next day."

So how did Russian athletes dope?

Rodchenkov also told the Times that he gave athletes a cocktail containing three banned substances and liquor in order to keep Russia at the top of international competition.

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

Wait, hold on. Liquor?

Yep, Liquor.

When did this happen?

The account provided by Rodchenkov details the Russian efforts in the lead up to both the London Summer Games in 2012, and the Sochi Winter Games in 2014. By the time Russia hosted the 2014 Winter Games, it had perfected the scheme. Russia won the most medals of any nation at Sochi, and not a single athlete failed a drug test.

How long are the Russian athletes banned for?

This is not a new ban, but rather the extension of a suspension put in place after a WADA report in November detailed the extent of Russia's doping efforts. At that time, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), track and field's global governing body, temporarily banned the Russians until confidence in their anti-doping efforts is restored. Apparently, we aren't there yet.

Is there any precedent for this kind of punishment?

Not really. International sports has never seen a doping scheme this sophisticated and this ingrained in an athletic organization—not to mention a national government—so there's nothing to compare the punishment to. Generally, doping-related bans have been for specific athletes, not entire programs.

Countries have been barred from the Olympics before, but that punishment has generally been reserved for political reasons. For example, Germany and the Central Powers were not invited to participate in the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp following World War I. South Africa was barred for nearly 20 years because of its system of Apartheid.

Why just Track and Field?

The WADA report specifically focused on the IAAF, as they were the main subject of the German documentary. WADA specifically recommended the IAAF suspend ARAF, the Russian athletics federation. Although the allegations extended beyond track and field, the IAAF bore the brunt of the investigation.

Why just Russia?

Depends who you ask. Russian officials have long maintained this is part of some kind of vast international conspiracy against them, and besides, everyone's doing it. For example, Russia's sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, released a statement when the New York Times reports were first published last year calling the revelations "a continuation of the information attack on Russian sport."

There is a tiny, microscopic kernel of truth to this. Russia isn't the only country were athletes dope, and some of that doping can be fairly wide-ranging. ProPublica and the BBC revealed last year that famed US Track coach Alberto Salazar ran a de facto doping program while working for the Nike Oregon Project, which has the goal to "get American distance running back on top, where it belonged."

The difference here is that Russia is the only country caught implementing a systematic, government-funded doping program that doesn't seem to be the brainchild of any individual rogue coach, athlete, or doctor. The country's entire sporting landscape is implicated.

What is the justification for banning the entire team and not just known users?

Because of the doping program's sophistication, the logic here is that even supposedly "clean" athletes may not actually be clean. Until Russia gets its act together, its anti-doping labs get re-accredited, and "global confidence in the integrity of its athletes" is restored, the entire program is banned.

In the meantime, clean Russian athletes can apply to compete in Rio as "neutral" athletes. It's not immediately clear how any Russian athletes can sufficiently prove they operated independently of the doping program, since every athlete's test went through the corrupt lab.

What did Russia do to try and get the ban lifted?

Sweet talk and groveling, mostly. Hours before the IAAF's decision, Russia's Minister of Sport Vitaly Mutko wrote an open letter to the IAAF president outlining the reforms Russia has taken in the wake of the scandal, asking the governing body not to punish everyone for the actions of a few. "Additionally," Mutko wrote, "Russia's athletes must not be singled out as the only ones to be punished for a problem that is widely acknowledged to go far beyond our country's borders."

Interestingly, the letter was distributed by Jeremy Gaines of Burson-Marsteller, an international public relations firm that NPR reports is "known for taking on tough clients." (Television host Rachel Maddow once quipped, "When evil needs public relations, evil has Burson-Marsteller on speed dial.") Gaines is based out of Washington, D.C., and, according to the company's website, previously worked in corporate communications for MSNBC and Gannett.

Hiring an outside PR firm is hardly unusual in the sports world—U.S. Track and Field also uses one, for example—but it is at least noteworthy that the Russian Federation does seem to be taking steps to shift public perception.

How did the Russian sports ministry react to the ban?

They issued the following statement, again through Burson-Marsteller:

"We are extremely disappointed by the IAAF's decision to uphold the ban on all of our track and field athletes, creating the unprecedented situation of a whole nation's track and field athletes being banned from the Olympics. Clean athletes' dreams are being destroyed because of the reprehensible behavior of other athletes and officials. They have sacrificed years of their lives striving to compete at the Olympics and now that sacrifice looks likely to be wasted.

"We have done everything possible since the ban was first imposed to regain the trust of the international community. We have rebuilt our anti-doping institutions which are being led by respected international experts. Our athletes are being tested by the UK's anti-doping agency, UKAD, and every one of them is undergoing a minimum of three tests in addition to the usual requirements. We have nothing to hide and feel we had met the IAAF's conditions for re-entry.

"We now appeal to the members of the International Olympic Committee to not only consider the impact that our athletes' exclusion will have on their dreams and the people of Russia, but also that the Olympics themselves will be diminished by their absence. The Games are supposed to be a source of unity, and we hope that they remain as a way of bringing people together."

Russian sports minister thinks Russia is not uniquely guilty. YURI KOCHETKOV // EPA

What are the chances the IOC overrules the ban?

No one really knows. It would be an unusual move, because the IOC has generally deferred to the individual governing body of each sport in these matters. It seems likely that the IOC will accept the IAAF's decision, but President Thomas Bach also has acknowledged it will be difficult to uphold the ban against athletes who do not have a history of violations. Some believe the IOC may strike a compromise that, perhaps, would permit only athletes who have never tested positive to compete.

The IOC is set to discuss these considerations on Tuesday.

Where is WADA in all of this?

This is the crux of the issue. WADA launched an investigation into Russia's doping only after German television network ARD aired a documentary outlining the entire program. WADA very much followed the press on this story, rather than leading the charge.

But, as the Times and other outlets have reported, WADA knew about this long before ARD's documentary. WADA spent years looking the other way on Russia's program even as athletes tried to blow the whistle. Way back in December 2012, a Russian athlete approached WADA with all the details, and the organization that is supposed to watchdog sports doping on a global scale did nothing. Part of this is because WADA didn't have an investigative arm—which it now possesses, though it's comically understaffed—and part of this is due to an apparent conflict of interest, given that WADA is funded by the same sports organizations it is supposed to be policing, organizations that are not keen on massive doping scandals.

Is the IAAF faultless here?

Nope. In the same WADA report from November 2015, the IAAF was specifically called out for corruption, and the following December, former IAAF president Lamine Diack confessed to soliciting £1 million from Russia to assist in covering up positive tests.

What did we learn from all this?

The most important lesson has been WADA's profound shortcomings in structure, reach, and institutional will. Policing the entire sports world for doping is a Sisyphean task, to be sure. Still, WADA has proven to be woefully ineffective at even the most basic forms of investigation and deterrence. Hopefully, this mess leads to some serious soul-searching about WADA's practices, its purpose, and if and how doping in global sports should be regulated and managed.