Russian doping about more than one Olympic Games

When you talk about the Russian doping scandal, it is a mistake to insist on speaking solely about the 2014 Sochi Olympics. That is, when the KGB – now named the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) – worked to allow dirty athletes to compete by swapping out urine samples in the night.

If they remember anything, people remember the ‘mouse hole’ media showed over and over on the news. It was the hole in the wall that permitted personnel inside the lab to give urine samples to KGB officers. People remember that more than anything else.

But, just before Pyeongchang 2018, it should be clearly stated the Russian scandal was more than that.


The Russian Ministry of Sport allowed athletes to dope outside of competition from at least late-2011 until August 2015, meaning the Russian Anti-Doping Agency was not doing its job for at least five years. It was not doing its job before London 2012; it was not doing its job during Sochi 2014; and it was, most likely, not doing its job before Rio 2016.

Certainly, you had honest Russian workers in anti-doping during that period. However, high-ranking sport officials, those who had all the information about the system, simply did not feel like telling the rest of the world the Russian national teams were cheating. They kept it a secret – for years.

Just before the Rio Olympics in 2016, after months of investigations, when the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) finally revealed the Russian doping system to the world, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) did not do much at all. Instead of affirming Olympic values, they passed the ball to the international sport federations. Most of them went on like nothing had been reported.

At that time, only two sports felt like they had to ban Russia: track and field and weightlifting. It was a sad day for whistleblowers, for athletes, for fans, for journalists, for investigators – for everyone.

Insisting on focusing only on the Sochi Olympics gives the impression the KGB only swapped their athletes’ urine samples one time. But, to prepare for Sochi, they did it more than once.

We know they swapped samples in major international competitions in Russia between July 2013 and July 2015, including the 2013 University Games (in Kazan) and the 2013 IAAF World Championships (in Moscow). When you take this into consideration, you realize the tremendous amount of competitions that were compromised between 2011 and 2015. It’s not just the Olympic Games; it’s all international competitions the KGB swapped in Russia and all international competitions Russian teams attended.

Moreover, since Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the most important whistleblower in this affair, considered “truthful” to Richard McLaren and the IOC, stated in some sports, “the use of anabolic steroids (was) almost year around” from “youth to veterans,” compromised events include junior and youth competitions. When I read that for the first time, I was speechless. I did not know how to react. I did not know what I could say. I did not know what the international community was going to do with the news that, on some national teams, everybody, whatever the age, was doping.

To be honest, I cannot express how important it is to read the two public McLaren Reports. Sport may simply not be your cup of tea. Yet, I can assure you this scandal is perhaps the biggest story in sport since the Stasi files, when the world revealed the doping system in East Germany. The Russian doping scandal is sometimes referred to as “the biggest doping ploy in Olympic history,” and all you need to know is in the two reports, available online.

The Pyeongchang Olympics are not going to be as clean as they should be. The Olympic Games probably are never as clean as they should be.

With the Russian scandal, the international sport community realized, too late, it is very hard to ban individual athletes, even though we can be pretty sure they were part of an institutionalized doping system. How can you prove that an athlete has doped, if you cannot find a banned substance in their sample? You can’t be sure of anything about the original sample, even if you prove the cap has been removed.

My research tries to show the most fundamental thing. It was not an individual affair.

The Russian doping scandal was not about athletes and individual coaches choosing, in a private circle, behind closed doors, they should dope to become superstars. It was not about individual athletes desiring to prove their worth to the world and seeking sponsors for ad money. It was not an individual decision.

The Russian scandal was a political affair. It was everyday employees of the Russian Ministry of sport, under the thumb of a powerful Russian few. The Russian population was not behind it; most information about the Russian system was kept secret. It was a decision of a few very high-ranked Russian officials. They got young athletes to believe drugs were a necessity.

We know now athletes who would refuse to dope would be thrown out of the national team. Besides, in some cases, like Rodchenkov claimed, it would probably happen on all national teams; the senior team, the junior team and the youth team.

In the end, the IOC has punished Russia, the country. It had to be a national punishment, because it was institutionalized doping. It was a state-sponsored program.

Yet, the IOC’s Russia ban allowed ‘neutral’ athletes from Russia to form an Olympic group named Olympic Athletes from Russia. You will probably read a lot about that group in the following weeks. Indeed, the ‘neutral’ athletes from Russia may perform really well. If this is the case, it will be as if the Russian state, that still won’t accept the WADA and the IOC findings about the scandal, had never rerouted.

I think that the readers of the McLaren Reports have reasons to be disappointed at the IOC, incapable of affirming its authority over Russia and, most importantly, incapable of protecting future Russian athletes. Allowing Russian ‘neutral’ athletes to compete under the designation of Olympic Athletes from Russia is definitely not enough to change the mentality of the dangerous high-ranked Russian sport officials that organized a doping system. In this case, they got away from years of unacceptable behaviour with a slap on the wrist.

Mikael J. Gonsalves, a sport philosopher, ethicist and international Olympic weightlifter, is a Kinesiology PhD student analyzing the 2016 Russian Doping scandal. His research focuses on the moral implications of doping in sport, cheating and strategic fouling.

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Western law professor Richard McLaren was at the heart of two key reports about Russian doping.

In November 2015, the World Anti-Doping Agency’s independent commission, led by Richard Pound, released a scathing report stating that many of Russia’s top track and field athletes were “involved  in a widespread cover-up of positive doping tests.”

In December 2016, McLaren served as the independent person heading an investigation team tasked with probing doping allegations related to the 2014 Sochi Olympics.