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Doping Shows Russia Is Rotten, But Not Hopeless

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Two findings stand out in the investigation of blatant corruption and cheating in Russia's athletics program: The mindset that doping was acceptable because "everybody's doing it," and the willingness of some athletes, coaches and technical staff to speak out, despite Russia's climate of fear and anti-Westernism.

The investigation, commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, stemmed from a documentary by Hajo Seppelt, "Top Secret Doping: How Russia Creates Its Winners," shown by the German TV channel ARD last year. Seppelt, a long-time anti-doping crusader, has uncovered the use of performance drugs and testing shenanigans in various sports and countries, from Germany to Kenya. His Russian expose has been the most sweeping, though, thanks to the help of two Russian whistle-blowers, Vitaly and Yulia Stepanov. The husband used to be a doping control officer, the wife a top 800-meter runner. They didn't only tell Seppelt how coaches, doctors and other officials insisted that athletes take forbidden drugs and how doping control officials were bribed to fix test results; they also surreptitiously recorded conversations with people in the sport to prove the allegations.

Given Seppelt's powerful material, the investigators knew what they were looking for and, although they met with a predictable amount of obstruction, more people told them similar stories. They even spoke of police and intelligence service surveillance and intimidation, helping the investigative commission to arrive at the conclusion that the doping system in Russian track and field was state-sponsored.

The system's existence won't shock anyone familiar with elite sports, especially as practiced in former Communist countries. Seppelt's early investigations concerned the East German sports pharma machine, famous for producing champions who never got caught. In his 1999 book "Dying to Win," Barrie Houlihan cited an Australian government report of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which most Western countries boycotted in response the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan: "There is hardly a medal winner at the Moscow Games, certainly not a gold medal winner, who is not on one drug or another: usually several kinds. The Moscow Games might as well have been called the Chemists' Games." Yet no one got caught: the KGB reportedly made sure of that to keep Leonid Brezhnev's showcase games scandal-free. 

There was no reason for this system to die with the Soviet Union: The post-Soviet authoritarian regimes were just as addicted to sporting success, as if it validated the way they ran the new states. An official with the International Association of Athletic Federations told the investigators:

To be frank there is no surprise to anybody that the former Soviet Union countries have a doping culture deeply incurred [sic] in the sport. It works for Russia, it works for Ukraine, works for Belarus, for Kazakhstan, works for all the former Soviet Union countries.

For decades, Soviet and post-Soviet athletes took the substances pushed on them by coaches and doctors, because their countries needed them to win -- and lately also because winning meant a payday. This explains some "capitalist" mutations of the doping system, such as annual payments from an athlete to intermediaries claiming influence with the testing lab, in exchange for blanket "protection" from doping charges. Besides, as Sergei Ilyukov, a Russian doctor who works with the Finnish Olympic team, pointed out, the quality of coaching and sports science in the successor countries has not improved since the Soviet Union's break-up. "Doping is a way to cover up and compensate for the lagging technology," he said.

Most spheres of modern post-Soviet and specifically Russian life that have something to do with "state interests" and budgetary funds are similarly corrupt. If independent investigators were allowed into Russia's government procurement system, the military-industrial complex, state energy companies or the "public movements" supporting President Vladimir Putin, their findings would almost certainly be similar to the ones detailed in the anti-doping agency report. That, of course, would require finding whistle-blowers on the inside, something the sports investigation suggests would be possible. Even though Russia's notoriously cruel agencies of repression were in on the doping business, some insiders were sufficiently fed up with the dishonesty and unfairness of it all that they came forward, putting aside fear of reprisal. 

Russian society may be rotten through and through, but everywhere, there are people who would like to see a clean-up. They don't buy the dominant mindset, which, as the anti-doping report puts it, "is 'justified' on the theory that everyone else is cheating as well."

Olivier de Hon from the Anti-Doping Authority of the Netherlands estimated in a paper last year that 14 percent to 39 percent of current elite athletes, depending on the sport, intentionally use doping. Only between 1 percent and 2 percent get caught every year. No country can guarantee that its athletes are completely doping-free. But then few countries have ever been caught as spectacularly as Russia. 

It's pointless to claim this is merely political pressure ahead of the 2016 Rio Olympics, as did Svetlana Zhurova, the former speed-skating champion who is a now a legislator in the Russian parliament. It's also useless to compare the commission's findings with Western sanctions against Russia, as did Vladimir Uiba, the head of Russia's Federal Medical and Biological Agency. The investigative commission's report has no legal force and the recommendations it makes -- such as banning Russia's athletics team from the Rio Games, unless the training and testing system gets a complete overhaul -- are non-binding. Yet there is no chance that the IAAF is going to let Russia off the hook, especially since its former head, Lamine Diack, is now under criminal investigation for allegedly helping to cover up Russian doping.

The only constructive way forward for Russia -- and probably the only way to avoid a blanket ban for its team and any clean athletes it might include -- is to adopt a zero tolerance policy on doping, and not just in track and field. This would, of course, affect the medal count in Rio and undermine some athletes' earnings. For years, the country might have to play catch-up with rivals, some of which will still be doping their athletes. Yet Russian officials need to understand that whatabouitism doesn't avert investigations, and that copying the worst practices of others wins medals that can later be taken away.

A true winner rejects cheating, even if as a result others occupy the podium -- and not just in sports. The whistle-blowers who talked to the World Anti-Doping Agency understood this and they give me hope for Russia, after the current corrupt regime finally folds under the weight of its dishonesty.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net