Turning a blind eye

General :Despite confessions of cheating by some Russians, WADA dithered as doping continued unabated
Last Updated 18 June 2016, 18:41 IST

In December 2012, the World Anti-Doping Agency received an email from an Olympic athlete from Russia. She was asking for help. The athlete, a discus thrower named Darya Pishchalnikova, had won a silver medal four months earlier at the London Olympics.

She said that she had taken banned drugs at the direction of Russian sports and anti-doping authorities, and that she had information on systematic doping in her country. Please investigate, she implored the agency in the email, which was written in English.

“I want to cooperate with WADA,” the email said.
But WADA, the global regulator of doping in Olympic sports, did not begin an inquiry, even though a staff lawyer circulated the message to three top officials, calling the accusations “relatively precise,” including names and facts. Instead, it sent Pishchalnikova’s email to Russian sports officials — the very people that she said were running the doping programme.

The tactics of the World Anti-Doping Agency have come under international scrutiny in recent months as major doping scandals emanating from Russia have escalated. Only after years of mounting clues of widespread doping did WADA recommend barring Russia’s track and field programme from international competition.

Interviews with dozens of officials and athletes in the Olympic movement revealed that the global anti-doping watchdog was hampered by politics to the point that it was largely ineffective in its mission to protect the integrity of sports.

WADA’s decision-making body is composed of government and Olympics representatives, an arrangement that presents possible conflicts because Olympics officials might not be inclined to reveal doping transgressions that could mar the integrity of the games, while government officials could be more inclined to protect athletes from their own countries. “There are conflicts all around the table,” said Adam Pengilly, an Olympic athlete from Britain who sits on the International Olympic Committee’s athletes’ commission.

Some WADA officials defended their handling of Russian doping allegations. They said their powers to combat doping have been limited, with scant resources and, until recently, no defined responsibility to conduct investigations. But other officials and athletes expressed a growing distrust of the agency’s leadership and a concern that it has shirked its responsibility to ensure clean competition.

“This systematic doping in Russia is being spread by WADA as sensational news, and it’s not the case,” said Arne Ljungqvist, a former medical commissioner for the Olympic committee and the IAAF, the governing body for track and field.

“They could have made an investigation,” he said about the years during which WADA received repeated tips like Pishchalnikova’s email. “But they didn’t.”

Just days before the 2008 Beijing Games, seven female Russian track and field athletes were suspended for manipulating their urine samples for drug tests. One of those athletes was Pishchalnikova.

A year later, Russian athletes were implicated again. This time, biathlon world champion Ekaterina Iourieva and two of her team-mates were barred from the world championships. “We are facing systematic doping on a large scale in one of the strongest teams of the world,” Anders Besseberg, the president of the International Biathlon Union, said at the time.

The Russians were left to investigate themselves. The Russian Biathlon Union was fined and promised to scrutinise its own athletes.

Ljungqvist, vice president of WADA from 2008 to 2013, said he repeatedly raised concerns about Russia. But in the end, he said, the inherent conflicts of interests within WADA and the Olympic movement won: The matter was tabled because “it was too politically infected,” he said.

“WADA always had an excuse as to why they wouldn’t move forward,” Ljungqvist said, citing limited money and investigative resources. “They expected Russia to clean up themselves. They hadn’t fully grasped that WADA had the responsibility to do this.”

Russian sports officials have acknowledged in recent months that the country has problems with doping, but they have emphatically denied charges of a state-run drug programme and dismissed whistleblowers’ specific allegations.

When the World Anti-Doping Agency was created in 1999, its official purpose was not to drug test or punish cheaters, but rather to serve as an independent watchdog for Olympic sports worldwide.

“They were afraid sponsor money would dry up if the Olympics were perceived as dirty,” said Robert Weiner, a former spokesman for WADA and, previously, the US Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The US government was especially wary about signing on to support an agency that did not appear independent. The International Olympic Committee is in charge of the Olympic Games, and derives tremendous revenue from them. IOC officials — specifically the head of the marketing commission — were going to lead WADA.

Investigative powers were not explicitly written into the agency’s code. As time went on, many expected the organisation to evolve into a more active regulator and testing body, separate from the IOC and the various world governing bodies overseeing Olympic sports. That never happened.

Instead, drug testing was largely left to national laboratories. In Russia, that lab was run by Grigory Rodchenkov, who said he routinely covered up positive tests in his 10 years there.

For years, Vitaly Stepanov, who worked for Russia’s anti-doping agency, wondered about the motives of WADA officials.

“Everyone was telling me WADA is not an organisation that fights doping,” Stepanov said. “It’s politics.”

At the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, Stepanov met several WADA officials and secretly began blowing the whistle on Russia’s state-run doping programme, as reported in 2015 by The Sunday Times of London. In subsequent years, he sent some 200 emails to WADA, he said, telling anti-doping officials everything he knew. “I’m writing to WADA what’s going on, and nothing is happening,” he said.

Inside WADA’s offices in Montreal, the agency’s officials were not sure how to handle Stepanov’s claims. David Howman, the longtime director general, said he thought to himself: “We don’t want to be the police. We can’t be the police.”

But he was aware that doping was becoming a criminal enterprise, and investigations — perhaps more than drug testing — were key to exposing cheaters. Howman eventually hired a top drug investigator from the United States: Jack Robertson, who would be the liaison between WADA and global law enforcement.

In September 2011, Robertson was assigned to tackle doping investigations for WADA. Officially, WADA’s explicit power to investigate would begin with a new code, approved in 2013 to take effect two years later — four years after Robertson was hired as staff investigator.

Still, there did not appear to be an appetite to look deeper into Russia, especially after a new president came on board in 2014. When Craig Reedie — a longtime IOC official — took over as head of the agency, the inquiry into Russia stalled, according to several people at WADA.

Frustrated, Robertson forced WADA’s hand, according to several people in the organisation. He leaked information on the case to Hajo Seppelt, a journalist for German broadcasting company ARD. Seppelt’s bombshell report, “The Secrets of Doping: How Russia Makes Its Winners,” aired on Dec 3, 2014. On Dec 8, 2014, Travis Tygart, chief executive of the US Anti-Doping Agency, sent a letter to Reedie and Howman at WADA, insisting that the agency had investigative power and that it needed to apply it to Russia. “For WADA to sit on the sidelines in the face of such allegations flies in the face of WADA’s mandate from sport, governments and clean athletes,” Tygart wrote.

Days later, WADA commissioned an independent inquiry, whose findings were published in November 2015. Russia was accused of widespread government-supported doping in an explosive 323-page report that centered on track and field. But not everything investigators had unearthed — including Pishchalnikova’s 2012 email, and WADA’s handling of it — made it into the report.

In her 2012 email, Pishchalnikova named Rodchenkov, the anti-doping lab director whose facility had recently been flagged by WADA for suspicious test results. She said he was substituting out athletes’ steroid-laced urine with clean urine. “I have proof,” the 2012 email said.

The agency’s decision to forward the email to track and field officials — including Russian ones who were implicated in the allegations — was a function of protocol. Despite having hired a staff investigator, WADA did not at that time see itself as capable of conducting investigations, the agency has said.

Four months after Pishchalnikova wrote to WADA, the Russian track and field federation banned her for 10 years. She is retired from competition and living in Russia. Attempts to reach her were unsuccessful.

Reedie said he had never heard of Pishchalnikova’s email. “We need people to come to us with evidence, and then we will investigate,” he said.

Meanwhile, athletes have in recent months agitated for further inquiries.
“Clean athletes are at the point where we can’t have faith in the system,” said Lauryn Williams, a US sprinter and bobsledder.

(Published 18 June 2016, 17:34 IST)

Follow us on