All Russian athletes might be barred from participating in the 2016 Summer Olympic Games because of a massive doping scandal. The country is now forced to defend itself from allegations.

Pictured: A national drug-testing laboratory in Moscow. Russian athletes were accused of state-sponsored doping at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and the International Olympic Committee asked the World Anti-Doping Agency to carry out a probe. Photo: AP

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is continuing the most extensive investigation in its history. The organization is accusing Russian athletes of systematically using various doping methods. If these accusations are found to be true, the entire Russian Olympic team might be disqualified from participating in the Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in August 2016.

According to the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, announced on May 17 that Russia’s participation in the Rio Olympics would depend on the results of the investigation. The investigation was begun by the WADA after an interview with Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of the Moscow Anti-Doping Agency.

Rodchenkov told American journalists that he himself developed the banned cocktail of anabolic steroids for the athletes in the Sochi Olympics. He also stated that the use of doping was systematic, and that the Ministry of Sport of Russia controlled the cover-up of samples.

“This looks like the slander of a traitor”

What is interesting, is that for several months, Rodchenkov stated completely opposite things. In November 2015, WADA accused him of purposely destroying 1,417 samples from Russian athletes. At the time, Rodchenkov called the accusations absurd, stating that the samples were expired and their destruction planned. The work of the Moscow Anti-Doping Agency was halted and he left his post. After leaving the Anti-Doping Agency, Rodchenkov moved to the United States, where he gave the sensational May interview.

“Rodchenkov’s words are pure accusations, they are not based on any proved facts, or derived from any concrete reasoning. It looks like the slander of a traitor,” stated Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, in remarks to the Russian media.

Putin himself commented on the situation during the ASEAN-Russia Summit in Sochi, stating that he “hopes that the actions of WADA are not connected to politically motivated restrictions.” By those words, he was seemingly referring to the economic sanctions placed on Russia by the United States, the EU and others.

At the same time, Putin stressed that Russian law enforcement agencies were willing to cooperate with WADA. Russia's Investigative Committee already announced that it is checking sources regarding violations of anti-doping rules. 

Potential links to the World Cup

The political situation between Russia and the West is becoming more and more relevant when discussing this scandal. According to the New York Times, the Prosecutor’s office of West New York has begun looking into accusations of Russian athletes and doping. This news has caused surprise in Russia, with Sport Minister Vitaly Mutko commenting that American law enforcement should focus on the issue of doping among its own athletes.

However, it was precisely the West New York Prosecutor’s office that led the massive case uncovering corruption in soccer. The result of the case was arrests of several officials of The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), and the retirement of its president, Sepp Blatter.

According to Mutko, the reasons behind the initial investigation was the discontent with the fact that FIFA awarded the 2018 and 2022 World Cup to Russia and Qatar, respectively. One of Russia’s competitors was the United Kingdom, and one of Qatar’s was the U.S.

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“The Moment Blatter took out the piece of paper with the words ‘Qatar’ everything began. If the paper said ‘USA’ no one would have thought anything unusual had occurred. The UK, which fueled the scandal, received only one vote and was out of the competition, no one took them seriously. Now they are in a coalition [with the U.S.],” stated Mutko

A series of doping accusations

From November of last year, Russians have been hearing about doping more than ever before. It started when Russian athletes were barred from competing in events under the International Association of Athletics Foundations (IAAF). It is still unclear whether or not Russian athletes will be able to compete in the upcoming Olympics. Perhaps they will be competing not under their own flag but under the flag of the International Olympic Committee.

“This does not really affect me or my teammates. We are all training to compete, fight, and show good results. I believe that there will be no Olympics without the participation of the Russian Olympic team. That is why they will allow us to compete,” said track and field star Konstantin Holmogorov.

Recently, there was another scandal concerning meldonium, most famously involving Maria Sharapova. The tennis player admitted to using the substance after it had already been banned. According to WADA data, at least 150 Russian athletes were guilty of taking the banned drug. The pinnacle of the scandal became the interview with Rodchenkov, conducted in the style of spy stories of the Cold War era. The greatest accusation against the Russians consists of the fact that doping was massive and was meticulously organized by trainers and other functionaries. Quoting a former official, this scandal is “the greatest machination in the history of sport.”

Russia’s view on the case is that even if there have been cases of doping, they concerned particular individuals, and because of this, athletes from other sports should not have to bear collective responsibility for the actions of others.

“There is such a thing as government responsibility, and then there is the responsibility of the athlete, national sports organizations, etc. I cannot keep track of every single person on Russia’s team around the clock,” said Mutko.

Negative reaction in Russia

The theme of doping has gained great resonance among the Russian public, and increasingly it is becoming an increasingly painful subject of discussion. One of the most popular sports media outlets announced, “Our sport is burning in Hell.”

On the Russian version of Wikipedia, for a number of days, the article concerning Rodchenkov began with the phrase, “American prostitute.” Olympic Star Tatyana Lebedeva stated that behind WADA there is an Anglo-Saxon lobby, and that they “are trying to undermine us everywhere where we are strong, including sports and music.” The last claim is apparently in reference to the performance of Sergey Lazarev in the Eurovision Song contest, when he unexpectedly and disappointingly finished in third place. 

Russian officials likewise reacted rather harshly. After the statement made by Kremlin spokesman Peskov, the official representative of Russia’s Investigative Committee Vladimir Markin called Rodchenkov a traitor, and added that the man “personally poisoned Russian athletes.”

A representative of the International Relations Committee of the State Duma, Aleksei Pushkov, wrote on Twitter that the governing body of WADA should step down for discrediting the Russians. The deputy made this statement after sanctions were lifted from swimmer Yulia Efimova, who was also initially accused of doping.

Mutko was more reserved in his commentary. In a column in the Sunday Times, he apologized for the track and field athletes, who “attempted to lie to the whole world, including us.” The committee of the IAAF will independently determine the question of eligibility of Russian athletes on June 17.

Meanwhile, there is an interesting development showing the level of Russian concern. According to NPR, Russia has hired the American PR agency Burson-Marsteller to deal with the fall-out from the doping scandal.

Putin’s promise to conduct any investigation jointly indicates that Russian officials are taking the possibility of disqualification in Rio very seriously. There is still time for a strong response, since the WADA investigation will end on June 15.