Russia’s track and field team was barred Friday from competing in the Rio Olympics, perhaps the sharpest rebuke yet against doping on the sport’s biggest stage.
The move by the International Association of Athletics Federations, its international governing body, was unprecedented — teams have been banned from the Olympics for political reasons, such as South Africa from 1964 to 1988 for its apartheid policy, but never doping — and widely praised among the sport’s leaders.
Reeling from multiple reports of systemic, state-sponsored doping, Russian athletes were initially suspended by the IAAF in November. A five-member task force presented an update to the IAAF council Friday in Vienna and reported that Russia had failed to fully address its “deep-seeded culture” of doping.
“It was not an easy decision to make today. . . . This is a sad day for everybody concerned,” IAAF President Sebastian Coe said at a news conference. “Any decision made today was going to be a sad day for our sport.”
Rune Andersen, who chaired the IAAF task force, explained at a news conference that Russia has made progress since the initial suspension but has failed to fully address its cheating tolerance.
“The head coach of the Russian athletics team and many of the athletes on that team appear unwilling to acknowledge the nature and extent of the doping problem in Russian athletics,” Andersen said, “and certain coaches and athletes appear willing to ignore the doping rules.”
Russian athletes have faced myriad charges of wrongdoing in recent months, most recently in a World Anti-Doping Agency report that was released Wednesday, two days before the IAAF council meeting. The report detailed some of the measures Russian athletes have taken to avoid drug-testing in the months that followed the initial IAAF suspension, including one incident in which an “athlete used a container inserted inside her body (presumably containing clean urine).”
“When she tried to use the container it leaked on to the floor and not into the collection vessel,” the report said. “The athlete threw the container into the trash which was retrieved by [a doping official]. The athlete also tried to bribe the [doping official].”
The report found that many athletes failed to properly report their whereabouts for tests and that doping control officers often faced intimidation. In addition, some athletes would report their whereabouts as military cities, where “athletes know that special permission is needed to gain access,” the report stated, noting that “athletes provide this location even if they aren’t there, to deter test planning.”
Doping allegations are among several issues plaguing the Olympics just seven weeks before the Opening Ceremonies in Brazil, which has tried to play down the outbreak of the Zika virus, economic and social unrest, cost overruns, crime, and pollution at the venues for water sports such as sailing.
The IAAF did adopt a pair of rule changes Friday, however, that provide some wiggle room for Russian athletes. Andersen said those who “are not tainted by the Russian system” could apply for an exemption. He said that would affect any Russian athletes who have been subject to reliable testing outside of the Russian system.
The organization also will give special consideration to “any athlete who has made an extraordinary contribution to the fight against doping,” which could include whistleblowers such as sprinter Yuliya Stepanova.
In a statement Friday, Vitaly Mutko, the Russian Federation’s minister of sport, expressed disappointment in the IAAF’s decision and said the Russians “have nothing to hide and feel we had met the IAAF’s conditions for reentry.”
“Clean athletes’ dreams are being destroyed because of the reprehensible behavior of other athletes and officials,” Mutko said. “They have sacrificed years of their lives striving to compete at the Olympics, and now that sacrifice looks likely to be wasted.”
Russia traditionally fields a competitive track and field team. At the 2012 Games in London, Russia sent more than 100 track and field athletes, who claimed 18 medals in all. Two of those have already been stripped because of doping violations, and others could be in jeopardy.
The Rio Games don’t formally begin until Aug. 5, but Olympic organizers have been trying to stem doping before a single event is contested. The International Olympic Committee has retested doping samples from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics and identified 55 men and women who could be banned from competing in Rio.
At a meeting Tuesday in Lausanne, Switzerland, the organization will discuss whether individual athletes from banned teams should be granted exemptions, an IOC spokesman said.
“We now appeal to the members of the International Olympic Committee to not only consider the impact that our athletes’ exclusion will have on their dreams and the people of Russia,” Mutko said in his statement Friday, “but also that the Olympics themselves will be diminished by their absence. The Games are supposed to be a source of unity, and we hope that they remain as a way of bringing people together.”
Coe said he will attend the meeting and also emphasized that IAAF alone has the authority to determine athlete eligibility in international competitions.
Andersen said given the breadth of doping in Russia, it would be difficult for the IAAF to grant exemptions. The line separating dirty and clean Russian athletes, he said, is a blurry one.
“The systematic doping that has been ongoing in Russia, it’s difficult to pick the clean athletes,” Andersen said. “As you know, one or two or 100 negative tests does not mean an athlete is clean. History has not shown that that is the case.”
The prolonged suspension was commended by most corners of the track and field world, a community that has grown accustomed to high-profile doping cases stretching back decades. Stephanie Hightower, president of USA Track and Field and a member of the IAAF council, said Friday’s decision “goes to the essence of our sport’s most critical issue.”
“It is the only proper course of action given the compelling and powerful evidence presented to Council,” Hightower, who attended Friday’s meeting in Vienna, said in a statement. “We do not believe that every Russian athlete cheated, and it is unfortunate and regrettable that some may pay a penalty for the serious transgressions of their federation. Ultimately, Council chose to act with unanimity and strength to help rebuild the integrity of the sport and the public trust.”
The U.S. Olympic Committee issued a statement calling the suspension a “step in the right direction.”
“It gives a measure of hope to clean athletes that there are consequences not only for athletes who dope, but for countries which do not engage seriously in the fight against doping,” the organization said.
Many Russian athletes, meanwhile, were stunned by the news. Pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva told TASS, Russia’s state-run news agency, that the decision was a violation of human rights.
“I will not be silent. I will take measures,” she said. “I will appeal to the court of human rights. I will prove to IAAF and WADA that they have made the wrong decision. I will do it to demonstrate and so that everybody understands Russia will not keep quiet.”