Ian O’Riordan: Just how big is the iceberg under Russia doping?
Analysis: Implications far more widespead than Russia, and indeed athletics
Dick Pound (centre), chairman of the Wada Independent Commission into corruption and money-laundering within international athletics at the launch of their findings in Geneva. Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images
Given the now irrefutably damning evidence that athletics is nowhere near the level playing field it is meant to be, one immediate question arises: can it ever? The question then extends to the entire landscape of global sport.
Because if Russia is only the tip of the iceberg, what lies beneath the surface of this latest doping scandal may ultimately prove insurmountable. It’s one thing trying to save credibility; it’s another thing trying to rebuild it all over again.
Banning Russia from next year’s Rio Olympics might help save some of that credibility, although possibly not for very long. One of the most frightening observations of the Independent Commission report into doping practices in Russia – and there are many – came from its chairman, Dick Pound: “We don’t think Russia is the only country with a doping problem,” he said, “and athletics is not the only sport with a doping problem.”
That wasn’t Pound trying to soften the blow on Russia, or indeed athletics. He was simply stating the obvious. Anyone who thinks the Russians are the only dirty ones in this business can’t help but realise that just isn’t true. And likewise for anyone who thinks athletics is the only dirty sport.
“It’s worse than we thought,” added Pound, a man who usually fears for the worst when it comes to doping in sport. Indeed Pound looked very afraid when presenting the report’s findings at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Geneva on Monday afternoon.
Pound also admitted that the Independent Commission had worked within the narrow remit of Russia and athletics, but that the implications of their findings certainly extended far beyond that. This could also make for further implications in any decision to ban Russia from the Olympics, particularly given the initial reluctance to suggest this will be a given. Again, if this is only the tip of the iceberg, it’s not just the Russians who should be worried about their participation in Rio. It may well be the sport of athletics itself.
What is certain, for now, is that Russia’s credibility as a so-called superpower of global athletics is in ruins. The Independent Commission’s 323-page report didn’t hold back when suggesting the 2012 London Olympics were essentially “sabotaged” by the “widespread inaction” against Russian athletes with suspicious doping profiles. It would appear that most, if not all, of them were competing under the influence of performance enhancing drugs, given how systematic the Russian doping regime turns out to be.
They termed this “a deeply rooted culture of cheating” – and that many of the more egregious offenders appear to be coaches who, themselves, were once athletes: this “win at all costs” mentality was then passed to current athletes, whether willing to participate or not. “An athlete’s decision not to participate is likely to leave him or her without access to top calibre coaches and thus the opportunity to excel”, and that this fundamentally flawed mindset is deeply ingrained in all levels of Russian athletics and “justified” on the theory that everyone else is cheating as well.
That really is the frightening part. Russia finished second to the US on the medal table at those London Olympics, following closely in third and fourth by Kenya and Jamaica. It was a similar showing at the 2013 World Championships, staged in Moscow, with the Russians again finishing a close second to the US.
Only this past summer, and with the investigation into Russia’s doping practices already well underway, the final medal table at the World Championships in Beijing looked a little different. With 16 medals in total, compared to Jamaica’s 12, Kenya suddenly emerged as the ultimate superpower in world athletics for the first time, both those nations finishing ahead of the US – while Russia dropped right back to a modest ninth place overall. Great Britain, meanwhile, also enjoyed their best ever championships, including four gold medals in all.
The problem, in other words, may already have moved on from what the Independent Commission has revealed on Russia. Their starting point was actually the German TV documentary made by Hajo Seppelt, aired in December of last year, entitled “top-secret doping: how Russia makes its winners”.
Not long after that, a whistleblower provided Seppelt with that extraordinary list of 12,359 blood samples, from about 5,000 athletes, which contained not just worrying but dangerous evidence of blood-doping practises – the gory details of which were published last August, in association with The Sunday Times.
Around the same time, Seppelt aired another documentary, which uncovered equally damning evidence of doping practices in Kenya, including secretly filmed footage of so-called Kenyan doctors openly providing EPO and other illegal substances to local athletes. Should Wada now order an Independent Commission report into what’s going on in Kenya, then the Russian athletes probably won’t be the only ones in danger of missing Rio.
And therein lies the real challenge for Sebastian Coe, the newly elected president of the IAAF, who was at least reasonably forthright about imposing an immediate ban on the Russians: “We need time to properly digest and understand the detailed findings included in the report,” said Coe, before adding he had urged the IAAF Council “to start the process of considering sanctions” against the Russian athletics federation.
“This step has not been taken lightly,” added Coe. “Our athletes, partners and fans have my total assurance that where there are failures in our governance or our anti-doping programmes we will fix them. We will do whatever it takes to protect the clean athletes and rebuild trust in our sport.”
Banning Russia from Rio may well sound out that loud warning, if not hold them up as an example of what happens when systematic doping practices are revealed. The only problem with that is if Coe is serious about protecting clean athletes there may soon be further irrefutably damning evidence to suggest the Russians are not the only ones who shouldn’t be at the Rio Olympics.