The World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) independent commission recently released a scathing report accusing many of Russia’s top track and field athletes of participating in a systematic doping program. Along with the athletes, the report said coaches, trainers, doctors and even the Russian government were all part of the widespread cheating scandal.
Born out of a 2014 German documentary, Top Secret Doping: How Russia Makes Its Winners, the 323-page report concluded the acceptance of cheating at all levels is widespread in Russia, with a well-established system of state-sponsored doping within the All-Russia Athletics Federation (ARAF), the governing body for the sport of athletics in Russia.
Western Faculty of Law professor Richard McLaren was one of three WADA independent commissioners who authored the report. Dick Pound, LLD’04, and Gunter Younger rounded out the commission.
McLaren has extensive experience as a commercial lawyer, labour and commercial arbitrator and mediator. A long-standing member of International Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), the world supreme court of sports disputes, McLaren joined former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell in the Major League Baseball inquiry into the use of steroids, which culminated in the famed Mitchell Report in 2007. McLaren also led the investigation for the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) into alleged cover-ups by USA Track & Field following the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000.
Western News recently sat down with McLaren to discuss his role in the most recent report, which is quickly becoming a game-changer in the world of sport.
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Western News: What goes into an undertaking like this? How did it come together?
Richard McLaren: WADA approached us in December 2014; we got up and running by the end of January 2015. We were created because of a German documentary by a public broadcaster called ARD. That documentary alleged a systematic methodology to the Russians winning medals in sport. The first thing we did was get an investigative company working for us. With that company, we went through that documentary and identified all the people. They were our first primary targets.
We then prioritized that group and started approaching them.
When it came to the actual whistleblowers, we received the audio and video recordings all of them made on mobile phones. Once we got that material, we sent it for forensic analysis to make sure it wasn’t manipulated. You can’t absolutely verify its authenticity, but you can tell a lot of things. Because it was made on a cell phone, some of the video and audio were poor quality. So, we had to engage companies to enhance that material.
With material related to a particular athlete, coach or medical doctor, we developed sanction packages. While the investigation was going on through the summer, we were sending the sanction packages to WADA because the commission can only recommend – it can’t act as it has no powers. We recommend to WADA that an athlete should be sanctioned, and they then have to send it along to the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). Under the world structure at the moment, they have responsibility for doping control within their sport.
And the way the IAAF operates, they have to send it, in the first instance, to the Russian Athletics Federation. We weren’t very happy about that because we knew, from all of our information, they were corrupted. We didn’t want to show them all of our evidence. In fact, we didn’t show them all our evidence at some risk of retaining it ourselves. Those cases are now proceeding through the process.
Are you surprised with what athletes and countries, in this case Russia, feel they can continue to get away with?
You have to appreciate what happens with athletes – and this is true of Russian athletes as it would be of Canadian athletes. The first step along the road to doping is the traditional step of preparation as an athlete. You’re getting into special dietary routines, vitamin and various other kinds of supplements, none of which are prohibited in any way. You work that in with trainers and maybe your coach. Athletes are used to that.
Then, when you move over into the drug world, which every athlete doesn’t do, it doesn’t seem all that out of the ordinary. You slide into it because of the people you trust, like coaches and trainers, suggest you’d get better performance if you did this. And they do.
That’s how they get there; they don’t just make a conscious decision at the outset.
In the case of Russia, the athletes were told everyone else in the world does it. They get told that by people in authority, like major national coaches, and if you want to compete at the highest level, you have to do it. If you don’t want to do it, then we’re not interested in you; go compete regionally or locally, but you’re not going to have access to the best coaches who will develop your skill to the highest level so you can compete in world competitions.
It’s pressure from people who are in trust relationships and positions of power and influence. They (athletes) accept they have to do it and it must be done.
It’s very important for the coaches to get the athletes to behave that way because their whole income is dependent on taking a percentage of earnings the athletes have from prize money or appearance fees. You might say that’s not very much in track and field, and that’s probably true in North America, but in Europe and Russia, track and field is a premier sport.
Can this cycle of widespread cheating from the top down ever be quelled?
First of all, you have to get contrary information into the system. You need to get the coaches buying into not behaving in this way. That means you probably have to change their compensation base and have state-supported funding of coaching, rather than them depending on athletes.
Then, you have to be assured the people who are doing the coaching and training are people of integrity. Many of the top Russian coaches were also selling these drugs to these athletes. It’s deeply rooted in the culture of Russia and it’s going to take a long time. I think they can change it. It will take a lot of time and education for it to change and the change will be slow.
The key thing will be for every international body to make sure a plan is implemented and is monitored to see it is operating effectively. Right now, Russia has a good a doping regime when you look at it on paper – just as Canada does. But it’s the way it’s administered that’s the problem. It is administered by people who are corrupt and extorting athletes.
Does the fact you claim government participation as part of this entire debacle make this incident that much more egregious?
I think when anyone is accused their first reaction is to deny. And the Russians have been accused for many years of these, and other, problems. Their normal reaction is to deny. That doesn’t trouble me. Ben Johnson denied long before he confessed.
We went to see the (Russian) Minister of Sport; we met him in Switzerland in late September, because we wanted to say to him, ‘Look, we have some pretty serious findings here’ and give him a chance to respond. We didn’t want him to say, at the end of the day, ‘Well, they never came to Russia. They never talked to us.’ He didn’t indicate to us he knew very much. He was absorbing it all and knew what was going on, where at the end of the day having told us we had obtained the information illegally, it was all fabricated, and so on. He said, ‘If you make any recommendations, make ones that I can really use and act on and we’ll see that they’re acted on.’
We were pretty confident they would shift their position over time. When they first came out to complain, we didn’t have any documentary evidence, and that’s not the Russian mentality, so nothing is documented. Not that we had any access to any of their institutions to even look at their documents. We had the capacity to deal with them in the Russian language, but we were never allowed to look at any of the institutions documents, or even get into the buildings.
At what point did the commission realize this went beyond the coaches and the athletes, and was in fact state sponsored corruption?
It took us a long time to come to that conclusion.
But when you look at how it all operated – the labs in the anti-doping agency, how they interacted – you have to come to the inference that this was a state-sponsored system.
But that’s all we have is inference.
Recent events show us further. The denial started immediately (Nov. 9) and comes from the Minister of Sport. Then, on Nov. 11, the personal press secretary of Russian President Vladimir Putin starts to indicate there needs to be something done. Then, on Nov. 13, you have Putin saying we’re going to change and some of what’s in the report is correct.
They don’t say which is, and which isn’t, correct. We know it’s all correct; we’re confident it’s all correct.
So, there is a complete reversal within the week.
Why did the Kremlin respond? Because it is state sponsored. The proof in the pudding is in the way they reacted as the week went on. I think they self admitted.
Would it be fair to say there may be a few innocent casualties caught in this wide net?
We discussed that on the commission and concluded things were so bad it had to be stopped. And if you’re going to stop it, it’s going to affect everyone. I would question to the degree which they have clean athletes at the elite level because of the way the coaches operate. Good heavens, at national competitions (within Russia), they had what they call ‘green lanes.’ If you were in a green lane, you would be allowed to compete while still on your drug regime. Your sample would be dirty, but they don’t take samples out of the green lanes. The doping control officers knew which lanes were green. That level of operation has to be controlled. It doesn’t just get created. It’s not spontaneous or a few rogue individuals that are doing that.
I don’t think there are a lot that are truly clean, but I’m sure there are some.
A group of clean athletes –if they were clean – approached the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in these past few days to see if they could compete as individuals, if Russia is banned, under the Olympic flag. The IOC said no. I don’t know how you would determine if they were clean or not. Who would do that?
I don’t have many words of comfort to somebody who has competed against a Russian and would have won a medal, or would have been in the top 10, and didn’t because their own sports federation were supporting and allowing that to occur. That’s pretty devastating. Not only are you being defeated by the athlete who is doping, but you’re being defeated by your own sport that is allowing this.
How was this latest experience for you personally – disturbing, surprising, intriguing?
It’s fascinating to be on a commission that had the resources to do what we did and to come to these conclusions and then for them to have the impact they have had. Very few of these commissions have had the impact we had. There are royal commissions in this country that make huge recommendations and have zero impact.
I started off being very skeptical about what was shown in the documentary. Gradually, my views changed. Then, as it got deeper and deeper, I became surprised at the extent of what was going on. I guess I’m over the shock value and disappointment. I’ve been working in this field for the better part of a decade and a half. In that sense, nothing in the doping world shocks me. It’s pretty unusual to be surprised. But I was surprised by the state run aspect of this.
Everybody says they’re going to do real change. Given the speed of the reactions and the public statements the various bodies are making, I am hopeful there will be real change coming from this.