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Russian Athletes Aren't the Only Cheaters

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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A highly anticipated report on doping and corruption in international athletics accused the Russian government of being complicit in a widespread and coordinated doping program, recommending that the Russian team be banned from next year's Olympics in Brazil. 

That would be a harsh, if merited, punishment. But let's not get so indignant over Russian nefariousness that we forget there's enough blame to go around the world.

 The World Anti-Doping Agency's independent commission released its report Monday, holding that Russian players, coaches, doctors, law-enforcement agencies and anti-doping officials colluded in "a state-sponsored regime." Among the offenses: Official security services were present in testing labs during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, creating an "atmosphere of intimidation" and "interference by the Russian state." The commission also says athletes were notified when they would be tested, violating the goal of random and spontaneous testing.

Data compiled in 2013 pegged Russia with the most doping violations of the 115 countries examined: 225 total, accounting for 11.5 percent of all violations. The most violations in a single sport, 42, came in track and field. The commission recommended lifetime bans for one doctor, four track coaches and five athletes, including Mariya Savinova-Farnosova and Ekaterina Poistogova, who won the gold and bronze medals in the women's 800-meter in London in 2012. The commission also urged that Moscow's anti-doping lab be stripped of its accreditation. According to the report, the lab's director "admitted to intentionally destroying" 1,417 samples to hamper the investigation.

The report also implicated officials in both the Russian Athletics Federation and the International Association of Athletics Federations, the world governing body of track and field. The IAAF president, former British track star and member of Parliament Sebastian Coe, said he would give the Russians until Friday to respond before considering sanctions. That's more time than they needed: Vladimir Uiba, the head of Russia's medical agency, dismissed the report as "politically motivated." Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko, whose office is accused of influencing the country's anti-doping efforts through bribery and cover-up, threatened to cut government funding for anti-doping efforts. 

As bad as all this is, it's important that the report's full implications don't get lost in the rush to condemn Russia. Russia's insistence that this is all about politics sounds like excuse-making, a tone-deaf denial. And it is. But it also reminds one of Lance Armstrong and his defenders insisting that he was a high-profile scapegoat meant to distract from the more widespread epidemic of doping in cycling. And despite his obvious guilt, there was some truth to that. The evidence against Russia is plentiful and damning and signals systemic cheating -- but that doesn't absolve the rest of the sport from guilt. (Turkey, for instance, had the second-highest number of doping transgressions with 188, a much higher rate of violations per capita.) 

Since his election in August, Coe has repeatedly denied that the IAAF doesn't take doping seriously, piling any blame on his predecessor, Lamine Diack, who is accused of accepting bribes. "We are not complacent," Coe said Sunday. But Monday's report "noted a cumulative lapse of action from the IAAF" in investigating doping suspicions and a "collective and inexplicable laissez-faire policy." Coe, who had been vice chairman of the organization since 2007, shouldn't escape blame.

Russia is an easy villain in global sports rivalries and James Bond films alike, with a cartoon-villain of a president who sank more than $50 billion into the Sochi Olympics for the sole purpose of projecting an image of Russian pride. "It's residue of the old Soviet Union system," WADA chief and the report's co-author Dick Pound said at a news conference Monday.

The legacy of the sort of state-sponsored doping we saw decades ago in East Germany remains, a reminder of the dark side of conferring political meaning on sports. National sports programs are supposedly a sign of luxury, the idea that a country has figured out things like jobs and public health so that it can now turn its attention to leisure. The U.S. in particular touts its success in sports as a marker of its civilization. But if we've learned anything from East Germany to Lance Armstrong to FIFA to Russia, it's that no society is exceptional when it comes to combating corruption in sports.

Cleaning up athletics can't stop with sanctioning Russia. The sport's governing body needs to take a serious, introspective look at how it got to this point, and would do well to heed the commission's recommendations that it adopt independent compliance officers. 

There are at least two other lessons to be learned. Coe, like so many other powerful sports officials, has accused the media of making "a declaration of war on my sport." But yet again, journalists were needed to force real change. It was a report by the Sunday Times of London and a documentary by the German broadcaster ARD/WDR, publishing the blood-test results of 5,000 athletes over a decade, that sparked the commission's investigation.

The second lesson is that the victims of state-sponsored doping are sometimes the intended beneficiaries. East German athletes during the Cold War were predominantly fed performance enhancers without their consent, told they were vitamins and supplements instead of hormones that carried life-long effects. The athletes named in Monday's report aren't innocent victims by any means; many admitted to taking drugs while being aware of the time frame between tests for when they were detectable. But in reading the report, you also get the sense that individual doping resulted from systemic pressure, pushed by coaches and officials who saw these athletes as political pawns. "They poured so much into her," one coach told a whistle-blower of Savinova-Farnosova. 

Let's also not overlook that the vast majority of athletes named in the report are women, whose naturally lower levels of testosterone make them better beneficiaries of the effects of doping with androgenic hormones. Valentin Balakhnichev, president of Russia's athletic federation, is accused of extorting money from female athletes to cover up their positive tests. Given that the IAAF is already dealing with a bevy of issues surrounding assumptions of natural hormone levels, I'd be interested to see how systemic doping breaks down along gender lines. Conducting science experiments on female athletes just because they're women is more than a doping infringement -- it's a human-rights violation. 

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:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net