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Russia Could Be Banned From Athletics After Report Alleges State-Sponsored Doping

An independent commission alleges that high-ranking officials blackmailed doped athletes in exchange for covering up positive drug results.

by Pierre Longeray
Nov 9 2015, 7:20pm

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An independent commission set up by the World Anti-Doping Agency has published a report uncovering widespread doping offenses within the All-Russia Athletic Federation and the International Association of Athletics Federations. That may result in Russia getting banned from athletics worldwide.

Members of the All-Russia Athletic Federation or ARAF and of the International Association of Athletic Federations or IAAF, the world body governing athletics, allegedly extorted money from athletes in exchange for whitewashing their doping records and, in some cases, getting rid of incriminating blood samples. The international anti-doping commission, or WADA, has also brought to light damning allegations about the Russian government's involvement in the cheating.

Speaking Monday at a press conference in Geneva, WADA commission leader Dick Pound recommended that ARAF be banned from the sport. Experts told reporters that the commission's investigation into the role of the IAAF was ongoing, and that their findings would be made public later this year.

The report noted a "deeply rooted culture" of state-sponsored cheating within Russian athletics, with experts alleging that Russian authorities were complicit in doping and that the government spied on and intimidated a Moscow-based anti-doping lab.

According to the report, the laboratory destroyed some 1,400 blood samples, probably to cover up positive drug results. Pound said it was unimaginable that Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko was unaware of these operations, and implied the minister was "complicit" in the scandal.

2012 London Olympics "sabotaged"

"WADA's call for the suspension [of ARAF] is somewhat unprecedented," said Pim Verschuuren, a research fellow at the Institute for International and Strategic Relationships. "It's not unlike the FIFA scandal, which also blew up after it was uncovered from the outside […] It's almost as though you need an outside intervention to bring about change," Verschuuren told VICE News.

Flanked by anti-doping experts Günter Younger, head of the cybercrime department of the Bavarian regional police office, and Richard McLaren, a member of the Court of Arbitration for Sport, Pound urged the IAAF to bar Russian athletes from competing in the 2016 Olympics in Rio. The IAAF, which is itself under intense scrutiny, said Monday it was considering sanctions against ARAF.

The revelations contained in the report have also raised questions over the credibility of several 2012 London Olympic wins, with Pound saying the games had been "sabotaged" by the widespread "inaction" of ARAF and IAAF.

Pound said the commission had identified "systemic failures" within the IAAF, that prevented the organization's ability to run "an effective anti-doping program."

The three experts also recommended lifetime athletics bans be imposed on five Russian athletes and five Russian coaches taking and prescribing banned performance-enhancing substances.

IAAF in turmoil

IAAF is currently embroiled in another doping scandal, with recent allegations that some of the organization's top officials extorted cash from athletes to cover up evidence of doping.

On Wednesday, former IAAF president Papa Massata Diack — who was replaced in August by British former track and field star Sebastian Coe — was placed under formal investigation by French police and charged with "passive corruption and aggravated laundering."

Diack's legal advisor Habib Cissé, from Senegal, and French doctor Gabriel Dollé — the former head of IAAF's anti-doping program — are also being investigated.

As part of the investigation, French magistrate Renaud Van Ruymbeke also ordered a police search of the IAAF's headquarters in Monaco. The allegations are being investigated by the French office that handles financial prosecutions.

Top officials involved in the scandal are suspected of receiving between 500,000 and 1 million euros ($540,000 to $1.08 million) in bribes.

The earliest allegations date back to 2011, when Cissé and Diack — nicknamed "PMD" — joined the IAAF to work under PMD's father Lamine Diack, who had run the organization since 1999. At the time, the two men were handed a highly confidential list compiled by the IAAF of names of athletes suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs.

In the run-up to the 2012 London Olympics, the two men allegedly handed ARAF a list of Russian athletes suspected of doping. According to online French investigative journal Mediapart, the Russian federation then did "the unthinkable," and tried to blackmail its own athletes.

According to the report, ARAF told the athletes it would clean their "biological passport" — an electronic record of doping test results — to allow them to take part in the 2012 Olympics. But this favor, they said, would come at a price.

Between January and July 2012, Russian marathon runner Liliya Shobukhova allegedly paid 569,000 euros ($612,500) to Russian trainer Alexey Melnikov — who served as middleman between athletes and ARAF — to cover up a positive doping case.

Five other Russian athletes are also suspected of taking part in similar schemes. In the end, Shobukhova got her money back after threatening to reveal the scheme to the authorities.

PMD and Dollé resigned shortly after German broadcaster ARD revealed the scandal involving Shobukhova. Valentin Balakhnichev — the president of ARAF and the treasurer of IAAF at the time of the alleged extortion — quit in February 2015.

In August 2015, ARD and the Sunday Times revealed the existence of an IAAF file containing the results from 12,000 blood tests carried out on 5,000 athletes between 2001 and 2012. According to experts, the database revealed that 800 athletes had results that were "highly suggestive of doping or at the very least abnormal".

WADA's anti-doping experts told reporters Monday that they were investigating the allegations and that they would reveal their findings in the new year.

"Because of the ongoing FIFA scandal, the entire sporting world will now be suspected of all kinds of fraud," said Vershuuren. "In the short term, it will give sports a bad name, but in the long term, we will hopefully see a change within these organizations. This is year zero for the sporting world. Today, the big debate within sports governance is whether to put an end to the impunity of sports organizations."

In a statement sent to the Sunday Times, Coe, said it was "abhorrent" that officials sought bribes from "athletes guilty of violating anti-doping rules." Dick Pound has voiced his confidence in Coe's ability to clean up the IAAF, describing him as "the man for the job."

Coe announced Sunday that he had commissioned independent experts to carry out a review of the IAAF's financial operations.

Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter: @PLongeray

Image via Sylvain FAVRE-FELIX/Flickr