When the world last came together for the Winter Olympics, Russia was in the doghouse because of doping.
Jacques Rogge, then head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), was so unhappy about a string of doping positives in Russian cross-country skiing and biathlon that he publicly upbraided the 2014 Olympic hosts, demanding that it “respond with strong anti-doping actions” and disclosing that he had voiced his concerns directly to Dmitry Medvedev, then Russia’s president.
In the four years since, and as part of its preparations to host the games that open on February 7 in Sochi, Russia has dramatically improved its anti-doping regime, say outside experts working with the Russians on that effort.
Russia clearly still has more to do to convince the sports world and its own drug cheats that its testing is credible and effective. Hardly a week seems to pass without more Russians testing positive in Olympic and non-Olympic sports. Just days before the Sochi opening ceremony, the International Biathlon Union announced the suspension of two Russian biathletes for failed tests. Any major Russian doping bust in Sochi would be a big embarrassment to the Olympic hosts.
Still, “having worked with them I can say that they’ve confronted this problem head on,” said Patrick Schamasch, who retired as IOC medical director in 2012 and is now part of a task force newly set up to tackle doping in Russian track and field.
“Russia can now be counted among those countries that have very effective doping controls,” Schamasch said in an interview. “I am hopeful that the dark days of doping in Russia are behind us.”
Those days were dark, indeed. At four of the last six Olympics, both summer and winter, Russian athletes were stripped of medals and sent home in disgrace for doping. At the other two—Beijing in 2008 and Vancouver in 2010—they competed against the backdrop of drug scandals. In 2010, the governing bodies of both skiing and biathlon fined Russia for the succession of doping positives that prompted Rogge to declare just four days before the start of the Vancouver Games: “People are worried by the numbers. It is absolutely legitimate to be worried.”
Nikita Kamaev, managing director of the Russian anti-doping agency, RUSADA, argues that the country shouldn’t be singled out. In an interview, he suggested Russia’s doping record is no worse than that of the United States.
“In no way was or is Russia a distinctive doping nation,” Kamaev said.
But some figures tell a different story. The governing body of track and field, the IAAF, lists on its website 370 athletes from 60 countries who are currently serving doping bans. Of those, 56—or 15 per cent of the total—are Russians, more than any other country except India, also with 56. The United States has 11 banned athletes on that list.
Skiing’s governing body, FIS says it has a total of nine banned athletes on file. Five of them are Russians.
Norwegian former sports journalist Trond Huso has 6,800 athletes in his online database of doping cases dating back to 2004. Of those, 522—nearly eight per cent—are Russians. Only the United States has more athletes in The Anti-Doping Database, with 629 serving or who have served doping bans in the past decade.
Schamasch says Russia is in “a transition period”, with “a certain number of athletes who are still in the hands, probably, of coaches from the old regime.”
“Bit by bit, their (doping) numbers will go down because new coaches and advisers will arrive who weren’t involved in what happened before,” he said.
RUSADA conducts more doping tests than any other nation: about 20,000 last year alone, Kamaev said.
There are questions whether RUSADA focuses too much on quantity, not the quality of its tests. The World Anti-Doping Agency’s director general, David Howman, told a WADA executive committee meeting last May that government funding for RUSADA is linked to the number of tests it conducts: more testing brings more money. This is not “a very sound way” of running “an intelligent anti-doping programme,” Howman said, according to WADA’s minutes from the meeting.
Kamaev, however, told AP that RUSADA is altering its strategy. Last year, it “dramatically increased” its numbers of “intelligent” tests, mostly targeting specific athletes suspected of doping. The result, he said, was an almost 70 per cent year-on-year increase in positive cases, for a total of about 180 in 2013.
Howman told the WADA executive committee in 2012 that RUSADA has also hired a former KGB intelligence officer to help with its anti-doping investigations. The Russian agency also is getting advice and assistance from its Norwegian counterpart. In an interview with AP, Anti-Doping Norway’s CEO, Anders Solheim, called RUSADA’s development “impressive”.
“They are conducting a huge number of samples,” he said. “They have a huge number of positive tests, as well. They’re actually catching a number of athletes... It’s worse if you are testing and no one is positive.”
Russia’s stream of positives “proves that the system is working”, Schamasch said.
“Today, all the lights are green.”