Explained: Why Russia faces international sports ban, including Tokyo Olympics

Mihir Vasavda
A Moscow building that houses a WADA-accredited laboratory. (Reuters Photo)

A World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) panel has suggested that Russia be banned for four years from competing in international events, including next year’s Tokyo Olympics. The move stems from new revelations in a doping programme that Russia has been accused of. A look at what the alleged programme is about:

How did these allegations unfold?

Over the last five years, whistleblowers and investigators have accused Russia of running a doping programme so sophisticated that it forced international federations to stop its athletes from competing in major events. In September 2018, after multiple investigations, WADA lifted the sanctions on the condition that Russia handover athlete data to doping regulators from its Moscow laboratory, which would help identify hundreds of athletes who may have cheated across various sports.

Now, Russia has been accused of manipulating that database. This is what led to the WADA panel suggesting the four-year ban.

Russia’s former anti-doping lab chief-turned-whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov. (NYT Photo)

What was Russia originally accused of?

In 2014, 800m runner Yulia Stepanova and her husband Vitaly — a former employee of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, RUSADA — appeared in a German documentary and lifted the lid on what was later described as one of the most “sophisticated doping programmes” in sports history.

Two years later, another whistleblower — Grigory Rodchenkov, a former head of the RUSADA — told The New York Times that Russia ran a carefully planned, state-sponsored doping scheme. Rodchenkov’s claims were more damning. He accused a wider conspiracy, in which the country’s anti-doping and members of intelligence services substituted urine samples of the athletes through a hidden hole in the wall at the agency’s laboratory during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. The lab, according to investigations, was guarded by members of Russia’s state security services.

Subsequently, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), WADA and other global federations launched a series of investigations.

A Russian flag is held above the Olympic Rings at Adler Arena Skating Center during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. (Source: AP)

What did these investigations look at?

WADA launched an independent investigation led by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren to look into the functioning of the Moscow lab. The IOC commissioned two inquiries — one of which looked into the evidence of manipulation of samples at the Sochi Games, and the other to find out the involvement of the Russian state.

The McLaren report laid out evidence of state-sponsored doping during the Sochi Olympics. One IOC commission, too, found dozens of Russian athletes guilty of being involved in anti-doping rule violations at those Games. The other IOC investigation confirmed that Russian authorities had developed a system that allowed the Moscow-based laboratory to change the test results and tamper with the samples collected during that event.

What happened then?

Immediately after the allegations surfaced, the accreditation of Russia’s anti-doping lab was suspended in 2015. After the preliminary investigations, the IOC removed 111 athletes, including the entire track and field team, from Russia’s 389-member contingent for the Rio Olympics. Following a deeper inquiry, the IOC suggested a complete ban on Russia’s participation at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Ultimately, 168 athletes participated through special dispensations from the international federations. But the Russian Olympic Committee was barred from attending the event and the country’s flag was not officially displayed at any of the venues. Russian athletes, too, were forced to wear neutral uniforms with “Olympic Athlete From Russia” printed on them.

A sign reading "Russian National Anti-doping Agency RUSADA" on a building in Moscow, Russia. (Source: AP)

Why did WADA lift the sanctions later?

That was an unexpected decision in September 2018, taken despite an outcry from athletes and anti-doping officials from the world over after negotiations between Russian officials and leaders of international sports organisations. Initially, in an agreement with WADA, Russia was supposed to admit to the wrongdoings and turn over data and samples before it was reinstated. Later, however, WADA backed off on the demand and, according to The New York Times, “accept(ed) the less harsh findings on the government’s role” as evidenced by an IOC commission. WADA president Craig Reedie, however, said the reinstatement came with ‘strict conditions’, that included WADA getting access to the Moscow laboratory that held athlete data.

Did Russia give access to and submit the athlete data?

In January 2019, a three-member WADA team retrieved the 2,262 samples from the Moscow laboratory through its “various servers, instruments, computers and other electronic equipment”, according to a WADA statement. The data were transported out of Russia for authentication and detailed analysis by the WADA.

In July, WADA said its investigators were examining “some differences” between the data retrieved from the Moscow lab and a separate database provided to it by a whistleblower in 2017, thus raising questions about the validity of data Russia submitted.

Will there be a new punishment imposed on Russian athletes?

The WADA panel on Monday recommended that Russia face a four-year ban from global sports, including the Tokyo Olympics. The proposed sanctions include:

* Forcing Russian athletes to compete at a second straight Olympics in neutral uniforms. If they win medals, the country’s flag won’t be raised and national anthem won’t be played.

* Russian athletes be allowed to compete in major events only if they demonstrate that they are clean and meet a number of other strict conditions.

* Preventing Russia from bidding for new championships, and moving the tournaments the country was set to host during this period to other nations.

* Barring Russian government officials and representatives from attending major events or from serving on the board of any organisation that has signed the global anti-doping code.

What happens next?

Russia has denied all allegations. The IOC, in a statement on Tuesday, called for “toughest sanctions” for those responsible for “manipulating the data” and demanded”‘the Russian authorities deliver the raw data on which this case is based”.

On December 9, WADA’s executive committee will meet to discuss these recommendations. If these are accepted, a formal notice will be sent to RUSADA. In case Russia rejects the panel’s suggestion, the matter will be referred to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). If CAS upholds the recommendations, they will be binding and must be enforced by all international federations.

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