A complex trail of corruption - the Russian doping scandal

There’s no hiding the fact that Thursday was another desperate day for track and field

Liliya Shobukhova of Russia crosses the finish line to win the womens section of the 2010 London Marathon. Photograph: Getty Images

Liliya Shobukhova of Russia crosses the finish line to win the womens section of the 2010 London Marathon. Photograph: Getty Images


The biggest scandal in athletics history started to slowly unfurl over drinks at a crowded Japanese hotel bar in February 2014. It was the night before the Tokyo Marathon but the Russian sports agent Andrey Baranov was troubled by something much deeper than his athletes’ chances. When Sean Wallace-Jones, a senior IAAF official he knew and trusted, sat next to him, he ushered him into a quiet corner and told him: “I need your help.”

Tentatively, Baranov began to reveal fragments of an extraordinary story involving doping, extortion and corruption. As he explained to a shocked Wallace-Jones, his athlete Liliya Shobukhova - the second fastest female marathon runner in history and a winner of the London Marathon in 2010 - had given €450,000 to senior Russian officials in exchange for covering up violations in her athlete biological passport.

That decision to speak out - at considerable risk to Baranov’s safety - led directly to the decision on Thursday by the International Association of Athletics Federations’ ethics commission to hand life bans to Papa Massata Diack, a former IAAF marketing executive and the son of the former president Lamine, along with Valentin Balakhnichev, the former president of the Russian athletics federation and IAAF treasurer, and Alexei Melnikov, the former chief coach for Russian endurance athletes. Meanwhile Gabriel Dolle, the most senior anti-doping official in track and field until 2014, was given a five-year ban.

The commission’s verdict was direct and damning. It found the four men had “acted dishonestly and corruptly and did unprecedented damage to the sport of track and field ... [HAVING]conspired to extort what were in substance bribes from the athlete by acts of blackmail”.

But without the persistence of Wallace-Jones the deep rottenness at the heart of the sport may never have been exposed. Immediately after meeting Baranov in Tokyo, he phoned Dolle to ask him for clarification. Dolle was hesitant and suggested they should chat when they were both back at the IAAF’s headquarters in Monaco. When they did so over lunch a few days later, Dolle was guarded. But Wallace-Jones kept digging. He alerted several other senior figures to Baranov’s story, including the IAAF’s deputy general secretary Nick Davies, and tried to arrange a meeting with the president of the IAAF, Lamine Diack. But it was slow going.

Another month, another meeting, another bar. On March 28th, Baranov and Wallace-Jones again found themselves drinking in a hotel - this time, the Marriott in Copenhagen - on the eve of the world half-marathon championships. Now, though, they were joined by Dave Bedford, the legendary former 10,000m world record holder and chairman of the IAAF’s road running commission. After hearing Baranov’s story, he urged the pair to report what they knew to the IAAF’s newly established independent ethics commission. Bedford trusted its head Michael Beloff QC, one of the world’s leading sports lawyers, to find the truth.

At that meeting Baranov made a second stunning revelation: that some IAAF officials were involved in extorting money. As he explained, Shobukhova had been asked to accept a suspension in exchange for getting a €300,000 refund. The money was transferred to her husband’s bank account from a company in Singapore called Black Tidings, which was linked to Papa Massata Diack. Baranov also insisted that Balakhnichev, the IAAF treasurer and Russian Athletics president, had knowledge of the arrangement.

Two days later, on March 30th, Wallace-Jones finally got to hear from Diack directly. But the meeting left him frustrated. As Wallace-Jones told the ethics commission, Diack “immediately told me that the accusations were untrue and that if there was any truth then they would be investigated.”

Second Captains

Wallace-Jones was unconvinced. “I told him that I believed that there was considerable circumstantial evidence and that investigation was certainly called for,” he says. “He then proceeded to tell me about his relationship with his son Papa Massata, saying how difficult it had been and how they had not spoken for many years and that there had been a lot of resentment from his son as he was rarely at home due to his political and sporting commitments.”

Baranov and Wallace-Jones continued to talk, both in person and on Facebook, piecing together what they knew like detectives. Finally it was time to act. On April 12th 2014, the day before the London Marathon, the men signed a sworn deposition and sent it by courier to Beloff’s office alleging corruption at the highest level of athletics’ governing body.

Corruption is not new in international sport, of course. But this went beyond financial embezzlement and bribes and directly on to the field of play. The actions of senior IAAF and Russian officials meant that Shobukhova was allowed to compete when she should have been banned because of huge anomalies in her biological passport.

As Beloff started quietly to go about his business, Shobukhova decided she wasn’t going to pay any more bribes and was banned from athletics in the spring of 2014. For several months the story went quiet, then in December 2014 it exploded. First the German documentary maker Hajo Seppelt revealed widespread doping in Russian athletics. Then the French newspaper L’Equipe revealed that senior figures had extorted money from Shobukhova, which led Papa Massata Diack and Balakhnichev to step down from their IAAF positions. Then the Guardian revealed that Dolle had left his post as the medical and anti-doping director because of the Shobukhova case.

Initially when we put this to the IAAF, we were told that Dolle had “retired after more than 20 years with the IAAF - he is 73 years old and the normal retirement age in Monaco is 65 so he was actually overdue to step down”. It was only when we insisted that sources had told us that Dolle had been questioned by the ethics commission that it reluctantly confirmed the news. On Thursday the IAAF’s ethics commission banned Dolle for five years for failing to ensure action was taken to suspend Shobukhova.

Most of the juiciest pieces of the report were already in the public domain. But buried in the appendices were interesting titbits and further potential time bombs - including a revelation that there was strongprima facie evidence Habib Cisse, Lamine Diack’s legal adviser is now being scrutinised by the ethics commission, along with Diack himself. The case against Dolle too, the report noted, might be reopened depending on the results of a French police investigation into whether he took bribes.

Other details also raised eyebrows. The IAAF’s anti-doping department thought it “unusual and inappropriate” when Cisse was brought in to personally scrutinise Russian athletes’ biological passport cases “despite having never previously been involved in any case at the result management level” - yet did nothing about it. Huw Roberts tried to quit from his legal position because the IAAF sat on six cases of Russian biological passport violations, but stayed on because Diack refused to accept his resignation.

The report was particularly damning about the behaviour of Russian and IAAF officials. Shobukhova’s signature was forged onto an “acceptance of sanction” form just before Russian Athletics imposed a ban on her. And while her story was “entirely consistent”, Balakhnichev and Melnikov’s account was “riddled with implausibilities, inconsistencies, transparent lies and dubious documents”, and Papa Massata Diack’s version was considered to be “lacking in any plausibility”.

Many in track and field continue to doubt Baranov and Shobhukhova’s motives in coming forward, given that his roster of athletes contains several with chequered pasts while she is a confirmed drugs cheat. But Baranov insists she deserves great credit for coming forward to the ethics commission and helping the World Anti-Doping Agency. As he told the Guardian: “Shobukhova was a “product of a system which was exposed by Wada” where athletes were encouraged to dope - or frozen out. “Liliya was also brave to speak out. Not many people know what she did or what she went through.”

Baranov also admitted to the Guardian that he still fears the repercussions from speaking out. “Of course I am worried but what are you going to do?” he says. “It had to be done for the future.”

And the Russians have a staunch ally in Dave Bedford, a strong anti-doping campaigner during nearly half a century as an athlete and administrator. “As horrible and sordid as this case is, our sport is in a better position now knowing this is happened than if it had been pushed under the carpet,” says Bedford. “And as a sport we have to give credit to Baranov, Shobukhova, and Wallace-Jones who bought this to the ethics commission.”

But there is no hiding the fact that Thursday was another desperate day for track and field. And athletics’ reputation is likely to suffer an even greater battering next Thursday when Dick Pound publishes a follow-up report into IAAF corruption, which he says will contain a “a wow factor”. Given a French police investigation into several former IAAF figures is also ongoing, those still left on athletics’ rickety ship must yearn for a moment when they are not being buffeted by wretched storms and scandals.

Guardian services

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