How bad can doping corruption in international sport get? Well, Russia, a major competitor, has (finally) been banned from international sport for four years, having previously been banned from the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. But that’s not the half of it.
Revelations like this come as no surprise to anyone in the anti-doping field. We’ve known for a long time that the anti-doping regime across sport is broken and riddled with inconsistencies. It is marred by corruption, dodgy testing regimes and outright state-sanctioned manipulation on a scale that rivals the achievements of East Germany in the 1980s.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has, for some time, been investigating systemic, premeditated cheating and corruption with doping tests by Russia. During the investigation process — in a classic case of “the cover-up is what gets you” — laboratory workers fabricated evidence, back-dated logs, manipulated data, and rewrote correspondence in a relatively hamfisted attempt to hide the cheating. This occurred at the Moscow lab that conducts doping tests for RUSADA, the Russian affiliation of WADA.
The Russian lab suspension joins similar suspensions in Bloemfontein, Beijing, Lisbon, Rio De Janeiro, Bangkok, Nairobi, Paris, New Delhi, Stockholm, Bucharest and Doha (yes, that many). While some of these suspensions are “technical” breaches, others are due to more systemic problems with testing legitimacy.
The Romanian lab was suspended due to direct evidence that technicians, under “orders”, covered up positive test results. Allegations against China for similar activities have been made for years — and resulted in the recent brouhaha with Australian swimmer Matt Horton refusing to share the podium with China’s Sun Yang at the 2019 World Aquatics Championships.
WADA, as the overseeing body, suffers from the same problems every transnational governance organisation experiences. Nations can choose what level of compliance they wish to display to willfully corrupt the process and effectively poison the well for all the nations involved.
Even when the labs and testing regimes are not corrupt, cheating athletes and teams have a multitude of ways to avoid positive tests. We have no way of truly knowing the extent of cheating, but we do have good evidence that it is up to 50% of track and field athletes — a far cry from the regularly quoted 1-2% in official statistics.
At least 60 athletes, including 12 gold medalists, have since tested positive from re-tests of samples from the 2012 London Olympics. This resulted in Australia’s Jared Tallent receiving his gold medal for the 50km walk four years late.
Below nationally-sanctioned corruption is team and network doping. The most well known being the disgrace of Lance Armstrong and many cycling teams, all caught up in systematic doping organised and administered via team support staff.
In yet another example this year, Austrian authorities via Operation Aderlass broke an international blood-doping ring across five sports. Busts such as this are now common in international sport, all originating from the Balco laboratory investigations in 2002 — where anti-doping authorities began to realise that doping was systemic, done by networks of labs, doctors and support staff. Australia’s own experience with our “blackest day[s] in sport” — the Essendon and Cronulla doping revelations — show we cannot be complacent (nor stand on our favourite high horse).
International sport is, of course, very big business, and is consequently prone to graft, corruption and state malfeasance. It is also an area of pride; the Russians will not easily accept the ban. It will be fascinating to see what response they have to the sanction, which will be another test of the global anti-doping regime. Can it hold firm in spite of the threats that will no doubt follow?
Russia’s next step will be to appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and after (probably) losing that the realpolitik will begin. The only certainty is that doping will continue, international compliance regimes and processes will still be ineffective and, ultimately, the athletes who try and follow the rules will lose.
Is there any hope for clean professional sports? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name if you would like to be included for publication.
Dr James Connor works in the School of Business, UNSW Canberra. He has won several social science research grants from WADA to investigate doping behaviour and the legitimacy of anti-doping strategies.