The International Olympic Committee’s executive board will decide Tuesday whether Russia will be allowed to send a team to the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea.
The ruling from the 14-member board, expected to come down at 1:30 p.m. ET, arrives three years after allegations first surfaced of state-sponsored doping in Russia, leading to a series of reports detailing the extent of the alleged program. Russia continues to deny a state-sponsored doping program existed.
The IOC has been reticent to punish the entire Russian team, instead considering athletes on a case-by-case basis or punting the decision on a blanket ban to the international governing bodies of each sport, as it did for the 2016 Summer Olympics. But with the 2018 Winter Games now only two months away, the IOC is again facing pressure to take definitive action and ban Russia from the event.
How did we get here? What can we expect next? Here are answers to those and other key questions ahead of the IOC’s decision.
How did the Russian doping scandal begin?
Back in December 2014, a German documentary film was released called Top Secret Doping: How Russia Makes Its Winners. It presented recorded conversations and unreleased documents outlining a long-running, state-directed doping system designed to cover up positive drug tests. It was later revealed that many of the allegations in the film had already been made known to the IOC and the World Anti-Doping Agency, but nothing was done.
Did this result in any punishment for Russia?
Kind of. An initial investigation by WADA uncovered widespread doping in Russia and efforts by the state to undermine effective drug testing. The report recommended that Russia be declared non-compliant with the international doping code, and WADA subsequently suspended Russia’s anti-doping agency, with British authorities put in charge of doping control in Russia. The report recommended no Russian athletes be allowed to compete in the 2016 Rio Olympics until the country demonstrated it was following the rules. Meanwhile, the Russians denied any wrongdoing.
What happened next?
This story really heated up in March of 2016 with the release of another German documentary, Russia’s Red Herrings. It alleged that top Russian athletes were provided banned substances and alerted to testing plans by officials within Russia’s anti- doping agency.
The real bombshell came a few months later, after the New York Times spoke to Grigory Rodchenkov, the former director of the Moscow anti-doping lab that had been suspended by WADA. Rodchenkov had fled to the United States months earlier, fearing for his safety. He told the Times that, during the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russian doping experts had collaborated with the country’s intelligence agency to swap out athletes’ “dirty” urine samples (which could potentially test positive for banned drugs) for clean ones, using a hole in the laboratory’s wall. He alleged the scheme had involved at least 15 Russian medalists from the 2014 Games, where the host country had topped the standings with 33 total medals and 13 gold.
Shortly after Rodchenkov’s spy-novel-like allegations were made public, WADA asked Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren to look into what happened in Sochi.
Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren issued a pair of scathing reports on doping in Russia. (Valentin Flauraud, File/Associated Press)
What did McLaren discover?
With the Rio Olympics looming, McLaren issued his initial report in July of 2016. Its contents were explosive, outlining a state-organized doping program of what it called “an unprecedented scale.” McLaren concluded that it was “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Russian sports and security officials, in conjunction with Rodchenkov’s WADA-accredited lab in Moscow, conspired to protect doped Russian athletes.
McLaren detailed the Russians’ method, first raised by Rodchenkov in the New York Times story, for swapping dirty urine for clean urine. According to McLaren, the process had been used on more than 600 samples from at least late 2010 to August 2015.
In the wake of the report, WADA again declared Russia non-compliant with international doping rules and called for a complete ban of Russian athletes from the upcoming Rio Games.
How did the IOC respond?
After McLaren’s report came out, IOC president Thomas Bach called Russia’s actions a “shocking and unprecedented attack on the integrity of sport and the Olympic Games” and said his organization “doesn’t hesitate to take all the measures and the toughest sanctions against this behaviour.”
Except Bach and the IOC didn’t ban Russian athletes from the Rio Games. Instead, the IOC punted the decision to individual sport federations. Among the world governing bodies, only track and field and weightlifting decided to prevent a Russian team from competing. The country sent 271 athletes to Rio, where they captured 56 medals.
While the IOC dithered, the International Paralympic Committee did not. It issued a complete ban of Russian athletes for its own Rio Games.
Thomas Bach’s IOC decided against a blanket ban of Russia for the 2016 Rio Olympics. (Fabrice CoffriniAFP/Getty Images)
What else did McLaren find?
McLaren issued a second report in December 2016, providing further details on Russia’s state-sponsored doping scheme. He concluded there were more than 1,000 Russian Olympians and Paralympians in 30 different sports — both summer and winter — “involved in or benefiting from manipulation to conceal positive doping tests.”
McLaren’s second report also identifies the existence of a so-called “Duchess” cocktail of drugs that certain Russian athletes were given during the 2012 London Olympics. Athletes absorbed the drugs by swishing a liquid in their cheeks, making for a shorter detection window than if the drugs were injected.
Will the IOC ban Russia from the 2018 Games?
This is the big question. Several athletes and anti-doping organizations have called for a total Russian ban, but it’s unclear what the IOC will do.
The organization set up two separate commissions to probe Russian doping, both driven by the allegations and evidence provided by Grigory Rodchenkov.
The Schmid Commission investigated the involvement of individual members of the Russian government and state security apparatus in doping. Its report was to be delivered to the IOC on Monday. The Oswald Commission is looking into alleged doping violations by individual Russian athletes. As of Monday, 25 Russians had been banned from the Olympics for life and their results from Sochi disqualified. One Russian was cleared.
The landmark case of cross-country skiing gold medallist Alexander Legkov may provide insight into how the IOC will handle other Russian cases being considered ahead of the Winter Olympics.
The Oswald Commission concluded that Legkov, as one of the athletes who allegedly received the “Duchess” cocktail, was part of a “conspiracy” to cheat, even if he never tested positive during competition. Because he allegedly provided a urine sample in a manner that was outside of the conventional doping-control process, Legkov “was a participant in the cover-up scheme implemented on the occasion of the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014,” according to the commission, and was stripped of his Olympic title and banned for life
Canadian Dick Pound, a longtime IOC member and advocate for drug-free sport, perhaps speaks for many when he calls for the IOC to be unforgiving in deciding the fate of Russia’s athletes for the upcoming Winter Olympics.
“You are part of a state that has systematically undermined the whole concept of doping-free sport,” Pound says of Russian athletes. “You are part of a system that is totally corrupt, and as part of that system you have to pay a collective price, even on the [small] possibility that you may not have been part of it.”
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