At the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, a whistleblower approached three officials with the World Anti-Doping Agency, the global organization that combats drug cheating in sports. Vitaliy Stepanov was a disillusioned Russian anti-doping agent, and in several meetings with WADA officials held in the Olympic Village in February 2010, he detailed how drug cheating was endemic among Russia’s Olympic athletes and how the government and Russia’s anti-doping agency were complicit.
For four years after those first meetings, Stepanov exchanged hundreds of emails with WADA employees, but the rules-enforcing agency never opened an investigation into Russia’s alleged rule-breaking. Finally, in early 2014, a senior WADA official, convinced his agency would never pursue the claims, directed Stepanov to contact a German journalist, in the hopes that the journalist would investigate them, according to Stepanov and a person familiar with the case who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Now, reports of widespread doping by Russian athletes at the past two Olympics are public, and WADA is rushing to complete its own investigation and decide whether to ban athletes from this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. But the revelation that WADA effectively outsourced an investigation to a journalist, four years after first learning of alleged doping, raises more questions from Olympic athletes about the effectiveness of the agency.
“Athletes have lost faith in the process and the way that they’re being protected,” said Hayley Wickenheiser, a Canadian ice hockey player and five-time Olympic medalist. “It makes you question your faith in the whole system and whether the playing field truly is even.”
WADA spokesman Ben Nichols said his agency’s rules did not grant it the authority to conduct investigations until January 2015.
“In simple terms, it came down to the fact that we, as an organization, didn’t have any investigative powers,” said Nichols, who did not dispute the basic facts of Stepanov’s story.
As the years passed after his first conversation with WADA officials in 2010, the Russian whistleblower said he began to wonder whether anything would ever come of his overtures.
“I often wondered what I was to WADA,” said Stepanov, who spoke by phone from an undisclosed location in the United States. “I didn’t know if I was an informant or just a pain in the butt.”
From the beginning in 2010, Stepanov said, he told WADA officials that Russia’s doping problem was not simply individual athletes and coaches trying to get unfair advantages but a systemic, state-supported effort to cheat.
Stepanov’s wife, Yuliya, was an elite Russian runner and had told him she for years had been using anabolic steroids and the banned endurance-boosting drug EPO without getting caught, under the direction of Russian coaches and physicians. And the cheating wasn’t confined to track and field.
Before the Vancouver Games, Stepanov said, a colleague at the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) told him of a list of athletes’ names that Russia’s sports ministry — a government agency — had sent over. These athletes, Stepanov said, were “the untouchables.”
“It was a list of Vancouver athletes who had prepared at doping,” Stepanov said. “RUSADA was to cooperate on those athletes and only test them them when the ministry allowed.”
The WADA officials Stepanov spoke to in Vancouver, he recalled, expressed surprise. One remarked that he had just had a conversation with a Russian sports official who had assured him the country was doing everything it could to keep its athletes from using banned drugs.
“And here you are telling us something opposite,” Stepanov said the WADA official told him. “And they asked, ‘So what do we do?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know.’ ”
While WADA says it lacked the apparent authority to conduct investigations, in 2011 the agency did hire a chief investigative officer: Jack Robertson, a former DEA agent. Robertson was one of several WADA employees who exchanged emails with Stepanov until 2014.
Nichols, the WADA spokesman, said his agency created an investigative team “to facilitate inquiries and investigations by cooperating with the relevant national and international organizations and agencies.”
In this case, Stepanov was claiming one of the agencies that WADA would work with to investigate his claims — RUSADA — was itself involved in the scheme.
As the years passed without action, Stepanov concluded that his overtures probably had been in vain. In February 2011, he lost his job at RUSADA because of restructuring, he was told.
“I saw that my wife, everyone who was inside the Russian system, they were right,” he said. “There was no doping fighting. It is just politics.”
In early 2014, Stepanov received a surprise email from Robertson. The WADA investigator told the Russian whistleblower to contact Hajo Seppelt, a German reporter and filmmaker who had investigated doping in Russia before. (Robertson and Seppelt declined to comment for this story. Stepanov confirmed it was Robertson who connected him with the German reporter.)
The resulting documentary, “Top-Secret Doping: How Russia Makes Its Winners,” aired on German television in December 2014. Within weeks, WADA, which at that point finally had investigatory authority thanks to a change in its governance, commissioned an investigation.
Last November, WADA made public the results of the investigation, which found widespread doping in Russian track and field, and suggested the cheating was rampant in other sports and that government officials were involved. The report stopped short of conclusively implicating sports beyond track and field.
A few weeks later, at a WADA meeting, Beckie Scott, chair of the agency’s athlete’s committee, implored WADA officials to open another investigation into all of Russia’s Olympic sports programs. Her request was ignored.
“I left the meeting a little perplexed. I thought maybe they just needed some time to consider this,” said Scott, a former Olympic cross-country skiier from Canada who in the 2002 Olympics finished behind two Russian skiiers who later tested positive for banned drugs.
“The curtain had been pulled back here of a state-sponsored methodology of undermining the anti-doping system and cheating, and yet only one sport was going to be affected? What about the other sports?”
In March, Scott and other athletes renewed calls to WADA for a wider investigation into Russian doping. Then in May, two more media reports stoked WADA to act again.
First, “60 Minutes” aired a piece on Stepanov and his wife. Then, a former director of Russia’s anti-doping lab, Grigory Rodchenkov, told the New York Times how he helped sabotage drug testing at the 2014 Games in Sochi, with the assistance of Russian government agents.
In response, the International Olympic Committee started retesting urine samples from previous games and WADA has opened a second, wider investigation of Russia.
WADA has set a goal to complete the investigation by July 15 so that a decision about Russia’s participation in Rio can be made.
Dick Pound, the former WADA president who led last year’s investigation, said Thursday he believes this new investigation will be comprehensive despite the timeline.
“It’ll be high-speed, but it’ll be thorough,” he said.
Others in the anti-doping community have doubts about WADA’s effectiveness, though, based on how it handled Stepanov’s claims.
“WADA’s foot-dragging has raised serious questions about the agency’s willingness to do its job,” wrote Travis Tygart, chief executive of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, in a May 25 op-ed in the New York Times.
WADA’s current president, Sir Craig Reedie, is also a vice president for the IOC, which oversees the Olympics. In his op-ed, Tygart termed this a “conflict of interest” and compared it to “the fox guarding the henhouse.”
A person familar with WADA’s inner workings who spoke on condition of anonymity agreed with Tygart’s critique.
“Craig Reedie is a vice president of the IOC first and a WADA president second,” the person said. “It’s just appalling. . . . Instead of standing up and doing his job, he’s just waiting to see which way the wind is blowing.”
Nichols said WADA “always acts in the interests of full independence across all of its activities.”
Stepanov, meanwhile, is awaiting his work permit so he can finally start making money for his family again. He does not know what he will do for a living in his new American home, but he said he would consider driving a cab. He’s keeping the specifics of his location undisclosed for now, for fear of retribution.
Looking back on his dealings with WADA, Stepanov recalled his mind-set just before the email arrived telling him to contact a journalist. He and his wife had just had their son, Robert, who’s now 21/2.
“At that point, I thought, just start getting normal. . . . Sports is corrupt, and move on,” Stepanov said. He did not know what motivated WADA’s investigator to send him to work with a journalist.
“If there were people higher that did not want to do anything about this,” he said, “then that was a good decision.”