A Missive From 3+ Years Covering the Russian Doping Scandal

FasterSkier’s Alex Kochon, Nat Herz, and the author (Chelsea Little) at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Little did we know what was going on behind the scenes of those Games. Looking back at our coverage of the 2014 Olympics, I’m very proud of the work we did. But I’m not too proud to say that while we thought we had a realistic understanding of international sports governance, we were still naive to its incredible inertia.

The following is an editorial I wrote for FasterSkier.com. As always, head there for more news and reporting about cross-country skiing and biathlon.

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Last week, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) cleared 28 Russian athletes of doping charges. Many people seemed shocked by this development.

The athletes had been disqualified from the 2014 Games by an International Olympic Committee (IOC) Commission. This was after more than 18 months of buildup in which the world learnt of systematic manipulation of the anti-doping process by the Russian state security apparatus at those Olympics.

I was both shocked, and not shocked. When all these athletes had been disqualified by the IOC and handed lifetime bans from Olympic competition, I knew in my heart of hearts that it would be undone (I’ll explain why below). But I hadn’t, somehow, put any thought into how exactly that would come to pass. So on one level, I was surprised, even if on another level I wasn’t.

When the news broke, I had written a profanity-laced all-caps message on our company Slack channel. On Twitter, I wrote, “I am so tired. That means that they have won.” That’s about all I could muster.

“I’m sure you are extremely disappointed by the CAS ruling,” one member of my extended family wrote in an email, knowing how many nights and weekends I had spent covering this story, how many hours and days of my personal life I had erased to chase it, because doing so does not pay the bills if you work for a cross-country ski website in America.

And I was disappointed.

I had thought that those nights and weekends would help make a better sporting world, help bring cheating to light, help hold the powers that be in sport accountable and call on them to do a little better.

But it felt like all that work had accomplished nothing, not changed a single thing to make nordic sports more fair.

I can only imagine how the athletes felt. The ones who found out that they would not be receiving medals after all, medals that they felt had been stolen from them by cheaters, medals that they had been slated to finally receive but now would never see.

I can only imagine.

More than anything, I was disappointed because I didn’t understand. I’m an analyst. No analysis I could do would explain to me just what had happened because CAS did not release a reasoned argument for their decision, which, as USADA General Cousel Bill Bock pointed out, is ludicrous. So at the moment we don’t know why these athletes were cleared; we only have speculation and hearsay.

But I had read previous CAS decisions, including the one partially upholding cross-country skier Alexander Legkov’s provisional suspension by the International Ski Federation.

In that decision, an arbitration panel wrote that they trusted the statements of whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov and investigator Richard McLaren.

That testimony that is widely speculated to have been found untrustworthy by the arbitration panel which more recently cleared the athletes.

There is a difference between provisional suspensions and rule violations, and maybe that’s the root cause (or maybe it’s not; one day we will find out).

But if two different arbitration panels can come to two completely different conclusions about whether evidence is trustworthy, then what is the point of a “high court” of arbitration? That’s disappointing.

On the other hand, maybe the new panel did believe that the whistleblower testimony was true, but that witness statements alone are not enough to prove a doping violation. We’ll set aside for a moment all the forensic evidence [see footnote 1].

If that’s the case, it’s even more disappointing. It means that all of the rhetoric over the last few years about putting more resources into investigations will not actually result in cleaner sport, unless there is a positive test or the presence of drugs or medical equipment (see: Austrian skier Wurm, Russian skier Pankratov).

It would mean that the World Anti-Doping Agency’s new “secure digital platform” for whistleblowing — and statements by athletes and doctors and team staff — are all useless to anti-doping unless they are followed by physical evidence of prohibited substances or methods.

But we don’t know the panel’s reasoning. This is all just speculation.

I was tired and disappointed because my job as a journalist is to take complicated things, and make them make sense to our readers.

Here, there was nothing to work with. There was nothing to explain.

Or was there?

Here’s my analysis.

Armchair commentators have said that someone at CAS must have been paid off. Olympic observers have noted that while Russia appealed the choice or arbitrators by the IOC, the IOC apparently did not appeal Russia’s choice. So maybe the panel really was biased. That’s one storyline.

A second suggested storyline is that the IOC set up the cases to fail, so that it would look like they tried to do something heroic, but in the end nothing would change.

To some extent, that is absolutely the case. Lifetime bans for doping have been attempted by the IOC before. Every time, they have been overturned. There was a zero percent chance it would work this time, either.

Did the IOC go further than that in “set up to fail”? Both storylines may be true. Neither may be true. But each of these storylines is far too myopic in their attempts to explain what happened with this CAS decision.

The reason that, in my heart of hearts, I knew that things would turn out just fine for most of these seemingly disqualified athletes, is that far more than CAS is broken [2].

Broken would imply that at some point the system worked. When was that, again?

This scandal has been going on for years. And in both it and other, non-Russia-related doping scandals, organizations have dragged their feet at every turn. There is no political will to keep sport clean. Ensuring clean sport would be hard. Nobody wants to do hard work. Universally, these organizations just want to run sporting events and for fans to be happy.

“We need to stop pretending sport is clean,” International Ski Federation (FIS) President Gian Franco Kasper [3] famously told New York Times reporter Rebecca Ruiz. “It’s a noble principle, but in practice? It’s entertainment. It’s drama.”

People were mad when Kasper said this, but it was an especially revealing comment. Maybe it is a testament to our optimism that we quickly moved on, focusing on how we would try to “solve” the problem of doping.

There have been individuals and groups who have worked passionately to uncover the truth, and done an admirable job. Beckie Scott at WADA [4] is one who comes to mind. But their work is always prevented from reaching its logical conclusion.

Let’s first look at the IOC, which has deservedly gotten a bad rap for dragging its investigations out for as long as seems humanly possible.

The IOC has certainly not put the resources or good-faith effort into looking under every stone, or doing so quickly. That’s how we got the first Sochi disqualifications – like Legkov’s – being announced in November of 2017. Most of the criticism leveled at the organization on this front is absolutely justified.

In all the time between May 2016, when the Sochi scandal was first broken by the New York Times, and November 2017, the IOC did very little. The decision banning Legkov relied mostly on the same evidence that had been in the McLaren Report.

The IOC Commission asked new experts to revisit the issues of scratches on sample bottles and salt content of urine samples. Basically, they repeated a lot of work which had already been done, expanding it to a larger number of samples but taking longer to do so by insisting on using different experts, who nonetheless came to the same conclusions.

For Legkov, all of this resulted in the same evidence that had been in the McLaren Report: that Legkov’s sample bottle from after the 50 k, which he had won, showed signs of being tampered with.

Sure, the IOC Commission got testimony from Rodchenkov. But that only at the last minute, perhaps because they were publicly shamed when it was revealed that they hadn’t contacted him.

It’s fair to criticize the IOC for its anemic investigation, but this is not just an IOC problem, just like the disqualifications being overturned is not really a CAS problem.

Look further. Since the McLaren Report, few other governing bodies have been doing better.

78 anti-doping samples belonging to biathletes are referred to in the McLaren Report. The International Biathlon Union (IBU) has not suspended any of the 38 athletes, that we are aware of, other than those who were suspended by the IOC. In fact, they have explicitly said that they would not investigate 22 of those 38.

“We like to play coy, like the cat wagging its tail when the mouse runs in front,” IBU Vice President for Medical Issues Jim Carrabre told me back at the 2014 Olympics, in an interview that led to the IBU’s media chief calling me into his office at the press center and dressing me down for talking about things that he would rather journalists didn’t ask his organization’s board members.

“It goes by once or twice, and then the third time it gets bitten,” Carrabre said at the time.

He was referring to blood profiles, a topic that has recently gained prominence.

For years I have been told by various people that the IBU has cases in the works, that soon I will hear about them, that they know some people are doping and are about to catch them.

I don’t doubt that Carrabre is a true believer in the anti-doping fight. He gets pretty fired up about things, as does fellow Executive Board member Max Cobb.

But the cases that I heard rumors of, even promises of, have never materialized.

The Athlete Biological Passport (ABP) was supposed to revolutionize anti-doping and indicate if athletes had been blood doping even when no illicit substance was detected. That sure would have been handy due to the drugs’ short detection windows and athletes’ and doctors’ strategies of “microdosing.”

But there have been no doping bans on the basis of ABP in skiing or biathlon [5]. I don’t think that even the most optimistic of fans really believes that this is because there is no blood doping going on.

What does that mean? That ABP doesn’t work, that it wouldn’t hold up in arbitration? Or that something else is going on?

It would be hard to look at IBU President Anders Besseberg’s behavior in the last two years – for instance, the IBU’s continued insistence that it’s totally fine to hold events in Russia, or his demeanor and statements during meetings with athletes – and conclude anything other than that he is sympathetic to Russia and would even more generally like to simply pretend that there was no scandal in his sport.

Having a few true anti-doping crusaders on a governing board does not clean sport make. I don’t want to put words into their mouths, but probably, it just makes these crusaders even more frustrated.

“When the McLaren Report first came out, I thought that doping was the greatest threat to our sport,” U.S. biathlete Susan Dunklee told FasterSkier in January 2017. “However after watching the last few weeks play out, I believe that the IBU’s reluctance to meaningfully act to prevent doping is the greatest threat to our sport.”

Then there is FIS. As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, there were 46 skiers implicated in the McLaren report. Not all of them, obviously, were at the 2014 Olympics or Paralympics, yet as far as anyone can tell, FIS has done nothing to investigate the other cases, some of which include alleged anti-doping rule violations.

A FIS whistleblower just leaked a bunch of old blood profile data to an international team of journalists.

(Which, by the way, how can I get in on that? Hi? I’m over here! I know a lot about doping in skiing and I also how to do statistics!)

The data is interesting, but nothing can really be done with it, as it is old and from the days before ABP was a policy. Without the journalists or their experts explaining how they decided what an “abnormal or highly abnormal” blood profile is, it’s impossible to judge what percentage of the athletes they identify as potentially having doped actually were likely dopers.

But perhaps this indicates that someone within FIS is frustrated with how things are going. If you cared about skiing being clean, cared about doing your job well, and listened to Kasper say things like “sanctioning entire countries is purely political and I do not agree with this,” you might be frustrated too.

And here’s the last thing. In this whole scandal we are talking about one country. That’s Russia, and it has led to a lot of ideological discussion.

But it’s not really about Russia.

Yes, the IOC and the IBU and FIS want to keep Russia happy, because their sports are popular in Russia, the Russian athletes are talented and popular even outside the country, because Russia is great at hosting events, and because Russian fans travel all over to watch competitions. That’s part of it.

And yes, some commentators have complained that athletes are being punished just because they are Russian. They have complained that this is a U.S.-led effort reviving Cold War hostilities. That we are Russophobes. That we are hypocrites because American sports stars dope too, and/or that lots of countries dope but we just haven’t found out about it.

But again, that’s being far too myopic about things, and believing that this scandal is only a thing unto itself, not part of the bigger problem.

If this scandal had taken place with Norway, Sweden, Germany, the United States, or any other country at the center – the outcome or the (lack of) speed of its resolution probably wouldn’t have been much different [6].

I – yes, I’m among those journalists accused of being hypocritical and anti-Russian, I’ve even been compared to Nazis, gee that was fun – I would chase this scandal just as hard if it had arisen in any of these other countries.

In fact, I would have investigated it with even more fervor if these were American or Canadian skiers and biathletes we were talking about. And presumably most of the evidence would have been in English, so I could investigate more effectively, without translating things I was looking for into Russian, searching the internet or evidence documents, and then translating the Russian back into English, in a crappy game of “telephone”.

I think that the North American athletes I routinely interview are aware that if I found out they were cheating, I would have no remorse and they would have nowhere to hide.

Just as I’m not a hypocrite, these sports organizations aren’t, either – well, they are, but not in this way, not when it comes to nationality. The claims that various decisions just come from Russian money and bribes are missing the point.

Whether coming from Russia or elsewere, these organizations don’t want a big scandal. They don’t want to rewrite their results sheets. The athletes who missed out on medals they probably should have taken home? These organizations don’t really care about athletes.

They are just an unfortunate bit of collateral damage, but oh well.

Time will march on. A new race will be held. It will be an exciting race! We will all be caught up in it.

Maybe Pellegrino will upset Klæbo.

Maybe an American will finally win a medal.

Maybe Fourcade will mess up his first stage, but then climb back to gold anyway.

Maybe Makarainen will mess up all her shooting stages, and we will all watch rapt to see whether she can pass 15 people on the final loop. Maybe she can.

Maybe Harvey will finally truly become the Prince of Quebec, crowned with an Olympic medal.

Maybe the breakaway will succeed.

Or maybe the favorite will win, but we will be enthralled until the final moment, watching to see whether they will pull it off.

Soon, we will forget about those athletes whom we were wondering about, the ones who maybe probably should have a medal stashed in their safe deposit box somewhere and a whole lot more sponsor money than they have now.

Those athletes will slip farther and farther to the back of our minds. In the forefront will be the day’s competition – so amazing! – and the big happy family that is sport.

Actual clean sport is not, and never was, these organizations’ goal.

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Footnotes:

[1] On the topic of skiers who were cleared by CAS: Maxim Vylegzhanin’s sample from Sochi also had scratches on it and had an incorrectly reported specific gravity; the two other members of the men’s relay team also had marks on their sample bottles, and one had a sample whose specific gravity was too high to be believable; two sprinters had marks on their sample bottles and for one, there as also a foreign fiber inside the bottle. Julia Ivanova, whose ban was not overturned by CAS, had an impossibly high salt value in her urine sample.

[2] I actually think CAS does work. CAS handles far more than doping cases – they handle contract disputes, team selection, trades, anything you can think of that would need arbitration. And as far as I know, they do a good job. This is the first CAS decision that has left me truly baffled.

[3] Term limits, man. We really, really need term limits.

[4] I’m not going to talk in much detail in this piece about WADA, which alternatingly does the right thing and the wrong thing, and often does the wrong thing for a very long time first. But at least in the last year or so, WADA is no worse than any other group, and indeed maybe a bit better.

[5] Blood profiles have certainly led to targeted testing, which caught athletes before the 2014 Olympics. But nobody bothered to try an ABP case, that we know of. Nor, seemingly, did the biathletes that the McLaren Report alleges were doping – Olga Vilukhina and Yana Romanova – fail their ABP’s. Either ABP is not being used, or it is not being successful and the details of the cases are never made public.

[6] If the perpetrator of this scandal hadn’t been Russia, I think the main difference might have been the reaction within that different country. I don’t think the Norwegian public would react the same way the Russian public has. Each place has its own culture around sport and what it means, and government also plays various different roles in supporting and controlling sport. But the reaction from the international organizations? Things would probably be much the same.