Sports Round Table

IOC hands Russia major ban for 2018 Games

The International Olympic Committee Tuesday announced the unprecedented step of suspending the Russian Olympic Committee for “systematic manipulation of the anti-doping rules and system,” but will permit individual athletes to compete in the upcoming PyeongChang Winter Games if they meet standards determined by an IOC-convened panel.

Any Russian athletes ultimately allowed to compete would do so under the designation “Olympic Athlete from Russia” (OAR) with a corresponding uniform, and would march behind the Olympic flag at Opening Ceremonies and hear the OIympic anthem at medal ceremonies. Officials from the Russian Ministry of Sport, the discredited team that represented Russia at the Sochi 2014 Games, and any coach or doctor affiliated with athletes who committed doping violations will be barred from the Games. Current Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko and his former No. 2 at the Ministry of Sport, Yury Nagornykh, are banned from all future editions of the Games. Mutko only last week presided over the draw for the soccer World Cup to be held in Russia next year.

Russia also will be assessed a $15 million fine to cover the costs of the investigation and to “build the capacity and integrity of the global anti-doping system,” according to an IOC release.

IOC president Thomas Bach said at a news conference that “every effort” would be made to reallocate 2014 medals to rightful winners in Pyeongchang. In the past, athletes who were “upgraded” have often waited years and received their medals in small, low-profile ceremonies.

The decision represented a reversal of the IOC’s reluctance to intervene before the Rio 2016 Games, when decisions on individual athletes were left up to the individual international sports federations and no higher-ranking officials were sanctioned. By contrast, the International Paralympic Committee barred Russia from its Summer Games and is expected to keep that sanction in place for Pyeongchang.

Tuesday’s action was based on the findings of the IOC’s Schmid Commission, formed in July 2016 to examine the role of Russian officials and institutions in organized doping. The commission, headed by IOC member and former Swiss president Samuel Schmid, relied heavily on the testimony of former Moscow laboratory director Grigory Rodchenkov.

Rodchenkov, who is living in the United States under the protection of federal authorities, had made much of his narrative public already through a May 2016 interview with The New York Times and the Netflix documentary “Icarus.”

The 52-page affidavit he provided to the Schmid Commission — which requested his testimony two months ago — was reinforced by the recent inclusion of handwritten diary entries. Those contemporaneous notes, the existence of which was first revealed in a published IOC disciplinary ruling on an athlete’s case last week, enabled him to attach names, dates and other recollections to the evolution of a concerted and elaborate conspiracy that played out at the Sochi 2014 onsite laboratory under the noses and oversight of international anti-doping and sports officials.

About the night of Feb. 15, 2014, for example, Rodchenkov wrote, “That night was a heavy night of urine swapping. (Yuri Chizov, Rodchenkov’s lab assistant) and (Evgeny Blokhin, an FSB officer who controlled a special team at Sochi) were running back and forth to prepare and execute urine swapping in a timely manner. They had difficulty keeping up the pace. I kept a note of this in the Sochi diary.”

Rodchenkov went into detail about the process needed to measure the density of each urine sample with sensitive instruments to make sure the clean samples were the same gravitational weight as the dirty ones. A lab technician would either add sodium chloride or distilled water to get the right measure.

He also wrote that he frequently updated his overseers at the sports ministry, Mutko and Nagornykh, about the success of the scheme. Not one Russian athlete, he pointed out, was recorded as having a positive test during the games.

“To address when samples were to be sent abroad, Nagornykh worked with the FSB to create a system to intercept the samples at the border,” Rodchenkov writes. “I was not involved in the details of this part of the scheme.”

Rodchenkov’s testimony, in concert with the extensive evidence unearthed and backed by forensic analysis in a World Anti-Doping Agency investigation headed by law professor Richard McLaren, refute consistent and increasingly strident efforts by Russian government officials to distance themselves and portray Rodchenkov as a rogue actor.

In his sworn statement to the Schmid Commission, Rodchenkov testified that his mandate came directly from then-Minister of Sport Vitaly Mutko and Mutko’s deputy Yury Nagornykh after the “disaster” of the Vancouver 2010 Games where Russia won just three gold medals. He detailed numerous meetings and communications with both in the affidavit.

Rodchenkov wrote that it was clear that the state-sponsored doping program he saw was an unbroken continuation of similar efforts under Soviet Russia. But after Sochi was awarded the Olympic games, the system became more sophisticated under Rodchenkov’s direction. Rodchenkov said it began in 2012, when Mutko told Nagornykh, his deputy, that Russian athletes had to achieve success in Sochi “at any cost.”

Over the course of the next few years, the scientist helped develop both a new, more sensitive test for steroid metabolites and a way to beat it. Rodchenkov invented a fast-acting steroid “cocktail” that could be swished orally and “wash out” of athletes’ systems quickly.

Yet the new detection method enabled the IOC to identify close to 200 positive results when retesting samples from the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Games, mostly in weightlifting, track and field and wrestling. One-third of them are from Russia, an outcome Rodchenkov predicted in 2015 in a memorandum to Mutko.

Advance notice of testing, corrupt doping control officers, falsification of lab results and substantial financial support through government grants purportedly designated for research also helped keep doping undercover. In the meantime, Russia hosted numerous world-class events, including the 2013 world track and field championships, which Rodchenkov described as “a ‘warm-up act’ for our doping work at the Sochi Games.”

The system worked with assembly-line precision at the Sochi 2014 Games, where, with the help of the FSB, Russia’s federal security agency, supposedly tamper-proof sample bottles were opened and dirty samples were swapped for athletes’ previously-stored clean urine through a hole in the laboratory wall in the middle of the night. The result: Russia hauled in its highest-ever Winter Games medal total of 33, including 13 golds. That number is destined to shrink considerably. Another IOC commission headed by Denis Oswald is pursuing cases against individual athletes and has sanctioned 25 to date.

Rodchenkov pointed out several opportunities in his affidavit for a “day of reckoning” where the pervasive scheme might have been discovered, including media reports that were not pursued by international sports authorities, and a 2013 accreditation hearing for the Moscow lab itself. “This was another critical moment when the endemic corruption should have been recognized, but we escaped it,” he wrote in a footnote within the Schmid Commission affidavit.

“It is quite obvious that the severe limitations on the powers of anti-doping authorities – when coupled with political influence and outright corruption – emboldened Russia in its efforts to cheat the system,” Rodchenkov wrote in another part of the statement. “After all, the world has long suspected what was actually happening in Russia.”

The IOC’s decision came almost exactly three years after the first explosive revelations provided by former Russian Anti-Doping Agency employee Vitaly Stepanov and his wife Yulia Stepanova, a middle distance runner, who gave evidence of organized doping and corruption within Russian track and field to investigative reporter Hajo Seppelt of the German ARD network.

Stepanov had been in frequent email communication with a World Anti-Doping Agency staff member and spoke in person with its leadership while in North America, starting in 2010, but the agency failed to act on his whistleblowing information until the ARD documentary aired. A WADA-commissioned investigation led by its former president Richard Pound led to the suspension of the Russian track and field federation in late 2015, which is still in effect.

After being fired from his job in November 2015, Rodchenkov feared for his life and fled to the United States, a decision that looked wise in retrospect after two former anti-doping officials died within two weeks of each other in February 2016 – one under especially murky circumstances.

Russian authorities have issued a warrant for his arrest and assailed his credibility continuously since he went public. Rodchenkov acknowledged the complexity of his story in the conclusion of his Schmid Commission testimony.

“I know I have disappointed many friends and colleagues with my duplicity while serving as director of the Moscow Lab,” he wrote. “Without excusing my actions, I hope all can understand the system in which I was operating. I hope my cooperation with the Schmid Commission, the Oswald Commission, WADA and Professor McLaren can serve as a form of repentance and absolution.”

Credit: ESPN

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