As more evidence has emerged this month of a state-sponsored doping program in Russia, some are calling for the International Olympic Committee to ban all of the country’s athletes from the upcoming Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. Doping and Olympic history experts, however, are skeptical the IOC will take such significant action for one simple reason: It never has before. In the modern history of the Olympic Games, the IOC has never banned a nation for competitive violations.
This week, IOC President Thomas Bach said that a former Russian anti-doping laboratory director’s revelations he made steroid cocktails for athletes and helped sabotage Olympic drug testing were “a shocking new dimension in doping with an … unprecedented level of criminality.” Bach noted that Russia’s track and field athletes are already under a global ban that could keep them out of Rio and that if the World Anti-Doping Agency concludes the most recent allegations are true, wider penalties are possible.
The IOC has banned countries from previous Olympics, but for geopolitical reasons. After World War II, Germany and Japan were not invited to the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, and South Africa was banned from the Games between 1960 and 1992 because of apartheid. More recently, Afghanistan was banned from the 2000 Olympics because of discrimination against women under the Taliban regime. Kicking a country out of the Olympics for widespread doping violations would set a different kind of precedent, though.
“It raises the question: Why Russia and why not other nations?” said Roger Pielke Jr., a professor at the University of Colorado who has studied the history and governance of sports organizations such as the NCAA, FIFA and the IOC. “If you’re Russia, you’ll say, ‘We’re the only country that’s been investigated, is that fair?’ And I think they have a point.”
IOC officials did not respond to a request to comment.
Rumors have circulated in Olympic circles for years about state-supported doping regimes in several countries, and both Kenya and Ethiopia are in the midst of their own doping scandals that have garnered much less worldwide attention. WADA decided to investigate some of those rumors in Russia last year only after a documentary by German broadcaster ARD entitled “Top Secret Doping: How Russia Makes Its Winners.”
Last November, WADA released a report that concluded doping was endemic in Russia’s track and field program, and the drug cheating was most likely supported by the Russian government. Then earlier this month, reports from “60 Minutes” and the New York Times bolstered that WADA report. Grigory Rodchenkov, the former anti-doping lab director from Russia, told the Times that he supplied athletes in several Olympic sports with banned drugs for years, with the support of the Russian government, and helped orchestrate a scheme in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi to replace tainted urine samples with clean ones.
In response to those reports, the IOC began retesting urine samples from prior Olympics, and announced this week that new tests of samples from the 2008 Olympics in Beijing found 31 suspicious results, implicating athletes from 12 countries. The IOC did not identify the athletes or the countries, but Russia is most likely one of them, as the nation’s weightlifting federation also announced this week that four athletes had been banned for doping violations.
The International Association of Athletics Federations, which oversees global track and field, suspended Russia after last year’s WADA report, and is expected to decide in June whether or not to end the suspension before the games in Rio.
Imposing a ban on all Russian athletes for the Rio Games would require political willpower on behalf of the IOC and any officials involved with the decision.
“Russia is an important country for a lot of geopolitical reasons, and unnecessarily provoking or angering Vladimir Putin probably isn’t high on the to-do list for governments around the world,” Pielke said.
Still, if WADA uncovers more evidence of state-supported doping in Russia, the IOC will find itself in a unique situation: being aware of state-sanctioned cheating while the state still exists.
The only historic parallel to the doping regime alleged in Russia is the East German program in the 1970s and ’80s that forced athletes, including prepubescent girls, to take steroids including male hormones. That cheating was long rumored — opponents of East Germany’s famed women’s swimming teams remarked about their masculine builds and deep voices — but hard evidence didn’t come out until after the Berlin Wall fell, and researchers accessed files from the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police.
To John Hoberman, a University of Texas historian who has studied sports doping for years, if WADA investigators conclude doping in Russia is widespread and state-sponsored, the IOC has no choice but to ban the country from Rio. But doing so would not end the questions.
“So, fine, you get through Rio, Putin sulks, and now you’re faced with a question of what to do now? Do you accept Russia’s claims that they can reform themselves?” Hoberman said. “Sending WADA emissaries to Putin’s sports commission to negotiate reform, it’s just not tenable. … This is tantamount to sending social workers to reform the Mafia.”
Historically, the IOC has drawn criticism for a laissez-faire attitude toward doping. For decades, the organization’s anti-doping testing efforts rarely uncovered cheaters. Testing at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow found zero instances of athletes using banned substances. Since the creation of WADA in 1999 — after doping scandals roiled the 1998 Tour de France — testing protocols have become significantly more rigorous, but the numbers of athletes caught at each Olympics has increased only moderately. The high-water mark, according to a 2014 IOC fact sheet, was the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, with 26 violations found in 3,667 samples taken.
“They’ve looked the other way for decades,” said Charles Yesalis, a retired health policy professor from Penn State University who studied anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. “It was always the one bad apple. … They’ll always go after the one guy or the one team. They don’t ever want to talk systemically.”
After announcing the results of retested samples from Beijing, the IOC said a similar wave of retesting is taking place with 250 samples from the 2012 London Games. After those results, the IOC will await word from WADA investigators who are trying to confirm Rodchenkov’s claims. Rodchenkov, who declined to comment through his attorney, has indicated a willingness to assist WADA investigators.
Until recently, Russian officials have denied reports of systemic doping with comments that have evoked Cold War disputes. That tone has changed recently, though. On Friday, the Russian sports ministry released a statement pledging to cooperate with WADA’s investigation.
“We have acknowledged we’ve had doping problems and that changes are needed” said the statement, which neither confirmed nor denied allegations of government involvement in doping. “However, we strongly believe that clean athletes, who have spent years of their lives training, should not be deprived of the right to participate.”
The recent change of heart has been met with skepticism by those involved with doping investigations.
“They’ve been all over the map on this,” said Dick Pound, the Canadian lawyer who helped found WADA and who led last year’s investigation of Russian doping. “Their sports minister has gone from railing against anti-Russian stuff, to falling on his sword, to now saying we’re doing everything we can, so you can’t punish innocent athletes. … He very cunningly chose to ignore the broader implications of the New York Times story.”
Pound acknowledged the potential for political concerns to influence an IOC decision on whether to let Russian athletes compete in Rio, and agreed that similar doping regimes probably exist elsewhere. But that doesn’t mean the IOC can’t punish Russia, Pound said.
To experts sympathetic to the anti-doping movement, the continued reliance of both WADA and the IOC on journalists to uncover doping scandals illustrates the gaps in the current system.
“If the sports world is only going to investigate as a consequence of high-level investigative reports that appear in the national media, that’s not a real effective way to run an anti-doping regime,” Pielke said.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.