But when it came to Russia’s other potential Olympians, the IOC’s statements this week generated shockwaves in the offices of international sports organizations around the globe.
As part of a “Five-point plan to ensure a level playing field for Athletes at the Olympic Games,” the IOC essentially said all Russians seeking to compete in Rio have to prove their innocence of drug cheating. The IOC also said that because the Russian Anti-Doping Agency was compromised (allegedly by state-supported sabotage), its tests are meaningless. As for who gets the unenviable task of figuring out how to vet Russian athletes for drug cheating without being able to use anything from Russia’s anti-doping agency, the IOC left that up to the individual sports federations.
As a result, 27 global sports organizations are now scrambling to figure out how they should handle Russian athletes trying to compete at Rio, with roughly six weeks to go until the Opening Ceremonies on Aug. 5. (The IOC said the same thing about athletes from Kenya, whose anti-doping agency’s credentials also have been revoked, but that nation participates in far fewer Olympic sports than Russia.)
Here are the major points on this fast-moving doping scandal — now probably the biggest in the history of organized sports — that could play out many different ways between now and Aug. 5.
What is considered proven about Russian doping?
That Russia’s track and field team has been rife with drug cheating for years, and that RUSADA, the agency entrusted to catch elite Russian athletes who dope, has allowed athletes to get away with cheating, either because of corruption within RUSADA, or because of acquiescence to requests from government officials in Russia’s sports ministry to allow certain athletes to cheat.
Do we know for a fact other Russian sports — such as swimming, wrestling and boxing — have similarly widespread doping problems as Russian track and field?
No, but there is evidence the problem extends beyond track and field.
Media reports — most prominently a series of documentaries by German journalist Hajo Seppelt — have uncovered evidence of systemic, state-sponsored cheating across elite Russian athletes in multiple sports. In May, a former director of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory told the New York Times he had helped athletes in summer and winter sports cheat, including dozens of athletes at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, where he also claims he participated in a scheme to replace tainted urine samples of cheating Russians with clean urine.
But until this year, investigations of Russian doping by the World Anti-Doping Agency, the global agency charged with combatting drug cheating in sports, have been focused on track and field. In May, WADA started investigating the Russian lab director’s allegations, with a target completion date of July 15.
(WADA, which first got tips from whistleblowers about widespread Russian doping in 2010, is being scrutinized for not launching broader investigations earlier.)
And how many athletes are we talking about here?
Potentially more than 300. In 2012, Russia sent 430 athletes to compete in 30 sports at the Summer Games in London, according to sports-reference.com, and the track and field team had 97 athletes. That left 333 Russian athletes competing in 29 other sports.
While the IOC runs the Olympic games, 28 federations oversee the individual sports that make up the Summer Games, such as the IAAF for track and field, FINA for swimming, and FIG for gymnastics. These federations are based all around the globe, with many of them headquartered in Lausanne, the same Swiss city where the IOC is based.
Have any of the other federations said how they’ll determine whether to allow Russians to compete in Rio?
As of Friday, the answer is yes — two, and that number could change every day. The International Weightlifting Federation has said it will suspend for one year any team that had three or more doping violations in recent IOC-ordered retests of samples from athletes at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. Those re-tests have apparently caught at least three Russians, so the IWF intends to bar Russian weightlifters from Rio (along with those from Belarus and Kazakhstan, who also had three or more doping violations in re-tests).
This week, the Washington Post contacted four other federations, those that oversee swimming, gymnastics, boxing and wrestling. A FIG spokeswoman said the Russian gymnastics team is cleared for competition because the federation conducts its own drug tests of gymnasts — independent of RUSADA — even out of competition. A FIG spokeswoman did not reply to a request for more information about how often it tests gymnasts out of competition. None of the other federations replied.
Why can’t all Russian athletes just get tested now to prove they’re not doping?
Just because an athlete tests clean today does not mean he or she hasn’t been doping. Sports history is filled with examples of notorious drug cheats (see: Armstrong, Lance) who never failed a drug test. A smart and determined drug cheat can take substances such as synthetic hormones in periodic cycles for months to boost performance, and the drugs can clear their system in a matter of days (and sometimes hours).
This is why the World Anti-Doping Agency mandates random, unannounced tests. The most important time for doping testing, experts say, is six-to-nine months before a competition.
What about Russians who don’t live in Russia?
Russian expatriates who have been living or training in another country — and taking regular drug tests by anti-doping authorities there — can compete in Rio. This applies to track athletes, too, but IAAF officials have said they expect just a handful of Russians to fall into this category. There have been reports of Russian track athletes fleeing the country in the past few weeks to try to get IAAF approval for Rio, but if they don’t have months of previous drug tests from their new homes, they probably will be unable to qualify for the Olympics.
Do the federations have final say here?
No, the final word goes to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, an organization (also based in Lausanne) that was basically created to keep international sports-related disputes out of national courts systems. Russia’s track and field team has appealed to CAS to overturn the IAAF ban, and this week Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko said his nation’s weightlifters also would appeal their Rio ban to CAS.
In the next six weeks, CAS could get inundated with cases, as various Russian teams and individual athletes could all protest federation decisions to keep them out of Rio.
Is this the best way to handle this situation?
Maybe not, but none of the organizations involved have ever handled a situation like this before. The only doping scheme as pervasive as what’s alleged in Russia is the old East German regime, and that wasn’t discovered until after the Berlin Wall fell, and East Germany no longer existed.
“The IOC and the IAAF are inventing processes as they go along in response to media reports, and we shouldn’t be surprised that they’re not really well thought-through and consistent,” said Roger Pielke Jr., a University of Colorado professor who studies the governance of sports organizations. “There’s really no way they’re [the actions of the IOC and IAAF] going to be satisfactory to the vast majority of athletes and federations.”
So, when everything is said and done, how many Russian athletes will actually compete in Rio?
Anyone’s guess. There are 28 federations that could create 28 different policies determining how to vet Russian athletes, and then you have the CAS as a backstop that could overrule any or all of them. And on July 15 — exactly three weeks before the Opening Ceremonies in Rio — WADA is set to release the findings of another investigation of Russian doping that could have more evidence of government involvement and doping in other sports.
“The last chapters of this saga haven’t even begun to be written yet,” Pielke said. “It’s still unfolding.”