Russia’s doping scandal: U of T sports expert on the crimes and punishments
Shockwaves rippled through the world of sport on Nov. 9 when the results of an independent report commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) revealed state-sponsored doping in Russia.
Among the report’s many findings were revelations that a Moscow-based laboratory had been tampering with, or discarding, positive blood and urine samples, with staff often pressured to comply through systematic bribery and threats.
Professor Peter Donnelly, director of U of T’s Centre for Sport Policy, has studied growing corruption in international sport organizations, and has been working to remedy the way those organizations are governed. (Read Donnelly on the FIFA scandal.)
He says that while this is just the latest in a series of such scandals, it could bring international, high-level sport closer to the brink in the court of public opinion.
What was your reaction to this latest news about such high levels of corruption and state-sponsored doping in Russia? Was this a long time coming?
This is just the latest in a series of large scale doping scandals: the East German / East European programs that peaked in the 1970s; the US Olympic Committee covering up positive tests in the 1980s; the widespread doping program among Canadian sprinters in the 1980s that led to the Dubin investigation, and the Festina scandal in the 1990s (cycling) and US Postal / Lance Armstrong scandal in the 2000s, and the Chinese and German doping scandals at around the same time.
It’s not surprising – whenever the outcome of a sports event becomes more important than involvement in that event, some athletes / sport systems are likely to seek an advantage. With the accessibility of online gambling and the possibility of betting on the outcome of almost any sports event, there are even greater pressures with regard to the outcome. And when governments become involved in the international pissing contest that has been called the "global sporting arms’ race" to win Olympic medals, then those involved feel more constrained to do "whatever it takes" to win.
It was probably a long time coming. I suspect that athletes from other countries at the London 2012 Olympics felt there was something going on in Russia. About 9 or 10 months ago I heard about the German investigative documentary and the Russian whistle blowers who provided the initial evidence; and there have been reports about them being in hiding in Germany for the last 6 months.
It is possible that Russia’s successful bid for the Sochi Olympics, and the country’s ambition for another summer Olympics triggered a new wave of attempts to win Olympic medals "by any means".
What is interesting is that Russia went from second place in track and field in London to ninth place in track and field at the World Championships in Beijing this year – the World Championships took place after the whistle blowers and the German documentary had pointed to the state-sponsored doping program, so Russian track and field was probably winding down the doping program as the WADA investigation was under way – triggered by the German documentary.
Is Russia alone in this scale of corruption?
Perhaps in the scale of corruption at this particular time, but again the secrecy of such actions makes it very difficult to know whether other countries are involved to the same extent.
The International Olympic Committee is considering retesting blood samples from Russian athletes who competed in Sochi, saying that athletes found guilty of doping should be stripped of their medals. What are your thoughts on that?
Re-testing athlete samples some years later, as new tests become available, is standard practice at WADA and national anti-doping agencies.
But it’s possible that many Sochi samples were among the more than 1,400 samples that we know were destroyed by the Russian anti-doping lab.
The WADA report called for lifetime bans on five coaches and five athletes, including two who won medals in London. Do you believe that is the right step?
WADA would be throwing due process out of the window if they did this. Due process would be to follow their own guidelines, and impose (what I believe is now) a four-year ban for any athlete caught for the first time. No governance or judicial system can work if you increase the punishment just because you’re mad at those who are guilty.
How much onus can be put on these athletes when it sounds like many were pressured by high level officials to comply or risk being excluded from training/competition?
I’ve always thought that the focus on athletes lets the other guilty parties off the hook -- those who provided drugs, those who pressured for and who monitored their use, and those who helped athletes to negotiate testing protocols were at least equally guilty, and should suffer similar punishments from WADA, from criminal justice agencies, and even from their professional associations (e.g., coaches violating their association’s code of ethics; doctors violating their Hippocratic oath to "do no harm").
The report also recommends that Russia be banned from international athletics competition until it has cleaned up its act, but some say that will only further alienate athletes and other members of their sport community.
I am not a believer in collective punishment – the punishments should be applied to those who have been found to be in violation of the regulations, or those who have assisted others in violating the regulations. There will be Russian athletes who have not been involved who would be caught up in a blanket ban, and who will have their own Olympic dreams dashed. The punishments should also fit the crime – fines for federations, suspensions or removal of guilty officials and athletes, etc. Even with a systemic doping program, it would be a mistake to assume collective guilt.
The public seems to be growing cynical about the authenticity of many international-level sporting events.
We are learning that the autonomy of sport – the existence of separate regulatory systems for sport, outside of mainstream regulatory systems – is a problem; and we have learned that in the often undemocratic, self-governing organizations of sport, corruption thrives. There are many scholars and activists who are now involved in actions that are attempting to limit the autonomy of sport, and to establish good governance principles for all sports organizations. The widely publicized problems of international federations for soccer, track and field and cycling appear to be just the tip of the iceberg – and unless things begin to change, sports will lose all credibility – they will become professional wrestling style ‘sportainment’.
What are the developments you’ll be watching most closely as this case progresses?
Most of the chapter about the international track and field federation (IAAF) in the WADA report has not been released because of the French police investigation of bribes taken by track and field officials to cover-up negative doping tests. I will be watching for that; and I suspect that, just as with FIFA, what we are hearing now is just the start rather than the end of the story.