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With doping ban set to end, Russia finds itself even more of an outcast

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/29/2022 Les Carpenter

Russia’s two-year ban from international sports was among the most severe the World Anti-Doping Agency has given to a country, but with the ban set to lift Dec. 17, geopolitical tensions over the past year have left the country further outcast in some circles, and critics are asking whether any lessons have been learned.

WADA originally handed Russia a four-year ban for its state-sponsored doping program leading up to the Sochi Olympics, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport reduced it to two. During that time, the Russian flag and national anthem were absent from global events such as the Olympics but athletes competing under the awkward title of the Russian Olympic Committee still won 26 gold medals over the past two Games.

With less than three weeks left in the doping sanctions, the International Olympic Committee continues to urge sports organizations to bar Russian athletes from their competitions following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While the matters are unrelated, much of the sports world remains skeptical of Russia and President Vladimir Putin, and that enmity was inflamed further by the arrest, conviction and imprisonment of U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner for possession of cannabis.

Then there’s the lingering controversy over Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva, whose positive test for a banned substance was revealed at the Beijing Olympics. Nine months later, the Russian anti-doping agency has not resolved her case, delaying the awarding of medals in the team event and frustrating WADA officials so much that they sent the matter to CAS this month.

“Trust in Russia’s anti-doping system is still very low,” WADA President Witold Banka recently told WADA’s Foundations Board meeting. “They have a lot of work to do to rebuild that trust. RUSADA remains noncompliant.”

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The lifting of Russia’s doping ban doesn’t happen automatically Dec. 17. First, WADA management has to conduct a review of Russia’s anti-doping program for the previous two years to judge whether the country has met the terms of reinstatement, including proof that the Russian government hasn’t meddled with RUSADA operations and that RUSADA hasn’t interfered with other anti-doping agencies that test and investigate Russian athletes.

If WADA’s management is convinced such requirements have been met, an independent compliance review committee will examine the findings and make a recommendation to WADA’s executive board. The suspension will continue until WADA is convinced Russia is compliant.

“Through the three phases of that process, compliance will be robustly assessed,” Banka told the WADA Foundations Board. “We will need to verify each and every one of the reinstatement conditions. Verify means verify — not simply accepting anyone’s word for it.”

Because most qualifying events for the 2024 Paris Olympics won’t start until next spring, leaders of the federations that oversee each Olympic sport are likely to maintain their Ukraine war bans on Russian athletes for several more months, minimizing the immediate impact of WADA’s findings. But the invasion has made some critics even more skeptical about how, or if, doping rules are being enforced in the country.

“The idea that the Russian sports machine has changed, especially with the Ukraine war, in a manner that is more reasonable and acted in good faith is unfathomable,” said John Hoberman, a social and culture historian at the University of Texas who has written extensively on doping. “Putin has gotten crazier and turned this into a culture war with the West. He’s receding into his bunker. This can’t possibly have a positive impact on Russia’s relationship with WADA.”

Hoberman went on to wonder if “RUSADA is even functioning” with authority to prosecute high-profile doping cases. “If I were working at RUSADA during Putin’s war, I would be very uncertain about what is permitted and not permitted,” he said.

Sports are important to Putin, who long has tried to portray himself as an athlete by allowing himself to be photographed practicing judo, playing hockey and hunting shirtless in the woods. He has attended several Olympics, sitting in prime seats beside world leaders as he once did with Britain’s Tony Blair at the 2012 London Games. During his regime, Russia has hosted both a Winter Olympics and a World Cup, and the country’s top athletes and its sports federation leaders are regularly pictured beside him.

“The Olympics was always one of the successes for the Soviet Union,” said Eric Lohr, a professor of Russian history and culture at American University. “They put a lot of resources into winning. Putin is trying to restore that element of greatness from the Soviet era. He’s bringing back the old culture. The Olympics is a big deal. He’s tied his prestige to it.”

“Russia always says, ‘We have great sportsmen, and we support peace,’ ” Olympic historian Bill Mallon said. “And if other countries ban them, they will say, ‘They are coming at us with politics and not sports.’ ”

Kamila Valieva’s case heads to court with WADA frustrated with Russia

Many cite Putin’s desire for a great nationalistic celebration at his $52 billion Sochi Games as the motivation for Russia’s doping program at that Olympics. Allegations, first in a German documentary by a RUSADA official and later by the former director of the Moscow anti-doping lab, unveiled a system of murky laboratories, switched and destroyed urine samples and the surveillance of Russian lab workers to dope a large number of the country’s athletes. Russia went on to win 33 medals, though three have since been taken away for doping.

In a June interview with The Post, Banka had said “anti-doping now is in a completely different place than it even was six, seven years ago” and suggested it would be much harder for a country today to operate a doping program like the one Russia had in Sochi.

“Now at WADA we have much stronger tools than when the Russia scandal erupted,” he continued, adding that in 2014 “we didn’t have investigative powers; we didn’t have special tools regarding compliance.” WADA now has these, he said.

The Valieva case only has raised suspicions that Russians are still being encouraged to dope. When her positive test was revealed a day after she helped the Russians win a gold medal in the team skating event, WADA provisionally suspended her only to have RUSADA lift the suspension, forcing the International Testing Agency and the IOC to appeal to CAS to have the suspension reinstated. CAS denied the appeal, and Valieva went on to compete in the women’s individual event, finishing fourth.

RUSADA was supposed to investigate Valieva’s test and hold a hearing six months after the Olympics — a process that has forced the IOC to hold off awarding medals in the team event until her case has been resolved. But nine months later, RUSADA’s only statement on Valieva was last month’s announcement saying it won’t reveal the result of her hearing because she’s a minor. WADA’s latest appeal to CAS seeks a four-year suspension for Valieva dating from Dec. 25, 2021 (the date the positive test was administered), which would wipe out Russia’s team event medal.

At the Olympics, many of the skaters in the U.S. group that finished second in the team event said they hoped the controversy over Valieva’s test and the holdup in awarding medals would bring attention to what American skater Evan Bates described as “what has been plaguing our sport for years.”

But with Valieva’s case still unresolved, many around the U.S. program suspect RUSADA is stretching out the appeals process in an attempt to force the IOC to ultimately give Russia the team event gold.

“What a farce will it be if the ruling isn’t publicized and the Russians will get their [gold] medal?” U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart said. “That will erode confidence in the system, and it frustrates athletes to the point of asking, ‘Why am I putting myself through [testing]?’ ”

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Tygart suggested that when sports organizations allow Russian athletes back in the mix, they should be required to undergo six months of testing before they are cleared to compete, as are athletes who come out of retirement.

“Will Russian athletes just show up in Paris without being tested?” Tygart said. “I don’t think that’s fair to the other Olympic athletes.”

Few outsiders have been able to get into Russia since the Ukraine invasion, though WADA officials have said anti-doping officials there are running a program, maintaining regular contact with WADA and sending required updates about tests and results. Through these and other monitoring programs, WADA has concluded that the Russians have been testing as many athletes since the start of the war as it did before the attack.

In a statement to The Washington Post, WADA spokesman James Fitzgerald said his organization “conducted an audit of RUSADA in September.”

In a separate statement, the ITA, which helps test athletes around the world, said “a network of independent sample collection agencies … are still operating in [Russia]” and the ITA is monitoring athletes’ biological passports (an electronic record of past and present tests that can show signs of doping) as well as storing samples for additional analysis.

Still, despite these attempts, Fitzgerald acknowledged in the statement that “the risks that are still present within Russian sport.”

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