Russian Doping Blurs Innocence and Guilt, With Olympics Caught in Middle

For the second time in four years, sports leaders are facing the question of whether to ban Russia and its athletes from the Olympics and other major competitions. And this time, less than a year before the Tokyo Games, there are loud and important voices arguing that there is no choice but to impose the harshest possible punishment.

The problem, those voices say, is not what antidoping officials know about Russia and its athletes. It is what they can never know.

Russia’s deletion and manipulation of thousands of drug-testing records have cast the credibility of hundreds of Russian athletes into doubt and raised uncomfortable questions about the integrity of next summer’s Tokyo Olympics. Russia’s actions, part of an organized scheme laid out last month in an 88-page report produced by investigators from the World Anti-Doping Agency, have also made determining which athletes cheated — and which did not — a Sisyphean challenge.

According to the investigators’ report, cases against at least 145 Russian athletes suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs have been “materially prejudiced” by deleted or altered data. Scores of drug cheats, then, can never be conclusively identified. Records set and races won can never be challenged. Medals illicitly secured can never be reclaimed. But the larger issue, antidoping officials around the world said, is that no one can be sure that athletes who gained an advantage through Russia’s program will not be present at next year’s Summer Games.

“We are talking about years of evidence and investigations that have exposed hundreds of potentially positive results: How many athletes are actually going to be brought to justice?” said Beckie Scott, a Canadian Olympian who this year will end her term as chairwoman of WADA’s athlete committee.

“I think for clean athletes,” she added, “it doesn’t instill a lot confidence the system is working on their behalf.”

The system’s next chance will arrive soon. The World Anti-Doping Agency’s board will meet next Monday to decide whether to accept a suite of recommendations from its compliance committee, which, with the help of a team of investigators, documented Russian actions that included not only the manipulation of drug-testing data, but also an effort to fabricate computer messages to pin the blame on the whistle-blower who exposed the country’s huge, state-sponsored doping program.

Russia is expected to appeal any penalty, even though its top antidoping official, Yuri Ganus, acknowledged in October that “thousands” of changes were made to the data to protect the reputations and positions of former star athletes who now have roles in government or who function as senior sports administrators in Russia.

The suggested penalties include a ban for Russian teams from international sporting events, including the Olympics and soccer’s World Cup, but they stop short of a blanket ban against individual athletes. Athletes and national antidoping officials, though, say that is exactly what is needed.

“The obvious intent by manipulating the data was to ensure doped athletes were able to escape sanction,” said Travis Tygart, the chief executive of the United States Anti-Doping Agency. “Now we can never know, and all are necessarily part of the cover-up, as sad as it may seem, if there are truly innocent ones. Those in power in Russia threw them all under the bus.”

Last week, Tygart called explicitly for a ban on Russian athletes at the Tokyo Games, saying case-by-case reviews of Russian athletes like the ones that allowed Russians to compete as neutrals in the 2016 Rio Games proved to be “inadequate.” Michael Ask, the chief executive of Denmark’s antidoping agency and the chairman of iNADO, an umbrella group for international antidoping organizations, said he would like to see a blanket ban across all sports for Russian athletes, allowing for only rare exceptions.

“I think we know by now, if we didn’t already know, that everything that has anything to do with that Moscow laboratory cannot be trusted,” Ask said. Only a draconian punishment, he and Tygart said, will protect clean athletes from other countries and force Russia to change its behavior. It is an opinion shared by Olympians like Scott, whose bronze medal in cross-country skiing at the 2002 Olympics was later upgraded to silver, and then to gold, after the Russians who finished ahead of her were disqualified for doping offenses.

One problem is that the International Olympic Committee president, Thomas Bach, disagrees with a broad ban on Russian athletes. Throughout the years of investigations that followed the 2015 revelations of Russia’s extensive doping program, the I.O.C. has taken pains to emphasize that it has no influence over WADA’s decision-making, even though it provides half of the organization’s funding and its members also serve on the antidoping agency’s board. But its opposition to a blanket ban is not new; when WADA’s former president, Craig Reedie, called for such a ban on Russia before the 2016 Rio Games, the proposal was rejected by Bach, who then, as now, said a balance needed to be struck between “individual justice” and “collective punishment.”

Two weeks ago, he repeated his opposition to a blanket ban on Russian athletes, even before the findings of the WADA committee were made public. To Bach, who won a team gold medal in fencing for Germany at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, punishing a generation of athletes for the sins of the past, or of individuals, would be inherently unfair. Only those associated with the yearslong state-backed doping program, he said, should face sporting excommunication.

As the scandal has played out in public, Russia, despite years of embarrassing headlines, has largely remained present on the global sports scene. Hundreds of Russian athletes continue to compete in their national colors, and in 2018 the country staged the world’s most-watched sporting event, the FIFA World Cup.

At the same time, it was continuing to balk at WADA’s request for access to data from the Moscow laboratory at the center of the doping scandal. For years, Russian antidoping officials and leaders at Russia’s sports ministry claimed the facility was off-limits to them, declared a crime scene by the Russian government and placed under the control of security services.

Russia finally relented last year, as part of an agreement with WADA. In January, Russia allowed a WADA team to extract the data from the laboratory’s database. WADA’s investigators had hoped to compare the Moscow data with another athlete antidoping file from the laboratory — known as the LIMS database — that it received from a whistle-blower in 2017.

What the investigators found, though, is that the data sets did not match; hundreds of tests had been altered or deleted by Russia, they said, before the information was turned over to WADA.

“What is already certain is that the alterations and deletions of the Moscow Data make it impossible to conclude definitively that any of the athletes included in the LIMS database do not have a case to answer for breach of the antidoping rules, which is just as unwelcome an outcome for the clean athletes among them,” the author of the WADA report, the British lawyer Jonathan Taylor, wrote to WADA’s board members last month.

At a meeting of the WADA board two months earlier, Taylor had underlined that point, saying the unreliability of the Russian data made it impossible to “properly clear” innocent athletes.

An I.O.C. spokesman said this week that it would be WADA’s responsibility to implement any penalties should it accept the recommendations set out by Taylor’s committee. But first it needs to know where to look.

When WADA’s investigators uncovered crude efforts to frame the Russian whistle-blower, Grigory Rodchenkov, and other former officials, they also discovered a plot to hide incriminating evidence against Evgeny Kudryavtsev, the official who had been responsible for ensuring that the biological samples of Russian athletes competing overseas were clean.

Kudryavtsev had served as a witness in the successful appeals of 28 Russian athletes who competed at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Those cases, antidoping officials said, now may need to be reviewed.

“If the evidence in court turns out not to be valid, of course the case needs to be heard again,” said Ask, the antidoping chief in Denmark. “That would be the same standard in any normal society: If the evidence has changed, the case should be heard again.”

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