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It was one of sport’s darkest episodes. Following the Sochi Winter Olympics of 2014 Russia was proved to have carried out a vast state-sponsored doping operation. The scandal didn’t just expose an epidemic of foul play it called into question the credibility of a system that’s supposed to guard against doping and protect honest athletes.
So is there a lack of will to catch the cheats? Doping isn’t just a Russian problem it’s a global problem. In 2011 an anonymous survey asked more than 1,200 athletes whether they had used performance-enhancing drugs. The result, which was kept quiet for six years, was astonishing. 44% admitted to doping but typically only 1-2% of samples test positive.
Just like the Olympic motto athletes want to be “faster, higher, stronger”. Performance-enhancing drugs promise just that. But all drugs come with health risks and crucially, they tip the balance in competition. The sports governing bodies, especially the International Olympic Committee or the IOC say they want to stop the cheats.
Back in 1999 the IOC declared war on doping. It created the World Anti-Doping Agency, or WADA. WADA was set up to be the anti-doping watchdog and to write the rulebook that would dictate best practice globally. But WADA’s independence is questionable. 50% of WADA’s funding comes from 190 governments and the other half comes from the IOC. And WADA’s average annual budget of $27m is less than 2% of the IOC’s revenue in an average year. WADA has around 120 employees. Only seven of them are tasked with conducting investigations into doping schemes worldwide.
With no power to enforce WADA relies on the national anti-doping agencies and sports federations to do drug testing. But different countries have different means, ability and yes, political will, to catch dopers.
The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics were a huge success for the Russian team. Two years later and just weeks before the opening ceremony at Rio 2016 something happened that no one had anticipated. Grigory Rodchenkov, the head of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory turned whistleblower. His admissions captured in the Oscar-winning Netflix documentary “Icarus”, thrust Russia’s actions into the public consciousness like never before.
WADA had been investigating allegations of Russian doping since 2014. But it wasn’t until July 2016 that it published a report conducted by independent lawyer Richard McLaren. Russia tampered with urine samples of athletes in a thriller-like, cover-up operation. They even mixed in salt and coffee to contaminate doped samples. More than 1,000 Russian athletes were accused of doping. Russia was categorical in its denial.
WADA was determined that Russia should pay the full price. But the IOC rejected WADA’s recommendations. The IOC allowed individual athletes to appeal against the decision at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, or CAS. The result? Over two-thirds of the Russian team were allowed to participate. Two years later the IOC cleared 169 Russian athletes to take part in the Winter Olympics. But were those outcomes entirely due to concern about the rights of individual athletes? The answer may lie in a complex web of politics and power in sports.
Alexander Zhukov, Russia’s deputy prime minister doubled up as president of the Russian Olympic Committee. Pavel Kolobkov was deputy minister of sports and part of WADA. And then there’s Vitaly Mutko. He was sports minister during the Sochi scandal but he wasn’t sacked for this embarrassing episode. In fact he was promoted to deputy prime minister. But placing influential people in positions of power isn’t just a Russian affair. The IOC has two bodies that are predominantly dedicated to fighting doping. WADA and the Court of Arbitration for Sport, CAS. Like WADA, CAS was also established by the IOC. These two bodies are meant to be independent but an intricate network of rules and people has raised questions.
Despite its $5.7bn revenue per Olympic cycle the IOC is registered as a non-profit organisation and benefits from Switzerland’s lenient association laws which means it has a lot of leeway in how it runs itself and raises the question is anyone governing the governing bodies?
So can anyone hold the IOC to account?