Nearly a year has passed since Geopolitics of Sports last covered the ongoing Russian doping scandal. A great deal has happened since Russia was banned from the 2018 Winter Olympics. A few key developments, including the reinstatement of the Russian Olympic Committee and steps taken by Russia to comply with anti-doping regulations, merit our renewed attention.
"Olympic Athletes from Russia"
A little more than a year ago, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had banned Russia from competing in the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Slightly moderating the embarrassment for Moscow was a late decision by the IOC to allow 168 individuals who had passed a rigorous set of protocols to compete under the Olympic flag as "Olympic Athletes from Russia," with the Olympic anthem played during their medal ceremonies in lieu of the Russian national anthem. Russian athletes with disabilities received similar accommodation for the Pyeongchang Paralympics.
These actions followed a series of media reports and investigations at multiple levels of the international sports establishment — most importantly, ones sponsored by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the IOC. Most of those in the West who observed the yearlong unfolding of the scandal believe it involved individuals at the highest reaches of the Russian government. The internal Disciplinary Committee report that finally persuaded the IOC to ban the Russian Olympic Committee from Pyeongchang noted an insufficiency of concrete proof beyond the level of the federal Ministry of Sport, however. "The IOC DC," the document explained, "has not found any documented, independent and impartial evidence confirming the support or the knowledge of this system by the highest State authority."
"Of course it came right from the top, from the president," whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov told a German media network in 2018.
It is beyond the ability of this author to ascertain the validity of such a conclusion. It should be noted, however, that it seems clear that Russia's infamous Federal Security Service (FSB) in all likelihood played an important role in the doping program. It seems relevant as well to consider what whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov, the former director of Russia's sole accredited anti-doping laboratory, says on the subject. In a January 2018 interview with Germany's ARD media network, he said, "Of course it came right from the top, from the president. Because only the president can appoint the domestic secret service FSB for such a specific task." Self-interest may have motivated Rodchenkov's remarks, but he is not alone in making his assertions. Former Russian athlete Yulia Stepanova, for example, told a U.S. congressional hearing in July 2018 that in terms of reform, "It should start from the top (of the Russian government) because if it started from the top, they … would stop doping."
As for himself, Russian President Vladimir Putin took a relatively soft position after the IOC banned his country from the Pyeongchang Games. While making sure to note that Russia was far from an exception on the matter of performance-enhancement by athletes, Putin admitted, "There were instances of doping use, true — I want the audience to know this and the whole country to know this." Moreover, Putin chose not to push for a boycott of the games after Russian media and other government officials had urged one. Putin's remarks stood in marked contrast to claims he had made before the IOC's decision, in which he claimed the doping allegations were part of a U.S.-led conspiracy and had said that an Olympic ban or restricted participation (as took place) would be a terrible "humiliation" for Russia.
Since then, Russia has worked steadily to regain its eligibility within the international sports system — though not without considerable criticism. Just days after the closing ceremonies in Pyeongchang, the IOC lifted its suspension of the Russian Olympic Committee. Upon hearing this news during a reception for the country's returning medalists, Putin optimistically expressed that Russia should move forward in the chance of better treatment. "It seems to me that this is a page, which we should turn," he said. "We should make the relevant conclusions for ourselves. But I hope that international organizations will also, at last, understand that sport needs to be held further away from problems, which have no relation to it."
Having its Olympic committee's suspension lifted was far from the last obstacle Russia has to clear in its return to the international sports scene. Under a new set of regulations, for instance, Russia will not be allowed to win bids for major international sporting events until WADA certifies Russia's anti-doping agency, RUSADA, which was suspended in November 2015, as compliant with international norms. Although progress had been made under WADA's "Roadmap to Compliance," the two organizations began a new stage of discussions in May 2018 after the heads of the Russian Ministry of Sport, Russian Olympic Committee and Russian Paralympic Committee sent WADA President Craig Reedie a letter apologizing for the doping scandal. WADA conditionally reinstated RUSADA in September. Keys to the decision were a Russian admission (loosely interpreted) to the findings of a 2016 investigation sponsored by WADA and Russia's agreement to give WADA full access to the records of its anti-doping laboratory. With the IOC set to lift its suspension of the Russian Paralympic Committee by mid-March, the ban placed on the Russian track and field team by the International Amateur Athletics Association will be the only remaining major restriction the country faces.
Has Russia earned these developments? Considerable doubt exists. At this point, it seems clear that Russia is at least trying to comply with international anti-doping regulations. How lasting its effort will be is something that only time will tell.