Will the 2016 Olympics in Rio be Russian free?
3 August 2016 by Bushra Elzubeir
An investigation into an alleged state-run doping program in Russia was launched following information provided by Yulia Stepanova, a Russian 800 meter runner who was herself banned between 2011 to 2013 for abnormalities in her athlete biological passport. Stepanova has since been branded a traitor by her native country and her family have moved to America after fears for their safety. Whilst the International Association of Athletics Federations are one of the International Federations to ban Russian participation at the Rio Games, they also invited the IOC to allow Stepanova to compete as an independent athlete.
“Whistleblowing” has always been a difficult issue for anti-doping bodies. Aside from the defences available to any athlete involved in an anti-doping rule violation, the provision of information by an athlete on others who are bound to the anti-doping rules is a key strategy employed by those who attempt to catch dopers. It is one that all agencies encourage, but the disadvantages to the whistleblower are obvious. This case highlights it on the grandest scale. The majority of the time, information can be provided and target testing set up based upon that information. If this leads to a positive finding then the whistleblower need never be named. Of course, the incentive for providing this information is that the athlete in question has part of their own ban suspended, so when an athlete who is banned for, say, 4 years is allowed to compete again after 2, it is not too big a jump to conclude that they have provided information.
Stepanova took a big risk, as evidenced from her effective exile from Russia and the reaction to her provision of information and where it has taken us. Despite this, the IOC ruled that she herself should not be allowed to compete in the Rio Games. There will always be a conflict in this regard: some will argue that she is a drug cheat and therefore should suffer the same consequences as other drugs cheats; others will argue that whilst she is a drug cheat, her provision of information for the “greater good” should be taken into consideration, that there needs to be an incentive for those who can help doping authorities. The ruling from the IOC on this will almost certainly have negative repercussions for anti-doping authorities hoping to convince athletes to provide them with information in future.
Whistleblowing is of course how Lance Armstrong was finally caught for all his doping affairs, of which there were many. However, by the time Armstrong was banned, there were around a dozen people who had provided information against Armstrong. The current case involving Russia is very different. The idea that governing bodies and country officials were actively involved in a doping regime is incredibly serious. This is what the McLaren report exposed – that there was, beyond a reasonable doubt, a state-run doping program in Russia.
As explained in a previous blog, the World Anti-Doping Code is unique in that it is a set of rules that’s aim is to harmonise all sports, meaning that regardless of what level and which sport an athlete competes in, the rules are the same and so are the punishments. The IOC’s decision not to issue a blanket ban on Russian competition at the Rio Games is in conflict with the purpose of the Code. At the time of writing this article, as reported by the Daily Telegraph, 17 of the 23 federations who need to make a decision on Russian athlete participation have done so, with 10 announcing no sanctions. Whilst the IAAF and International Cycling Union have taken action, other federations have not. Notably, United World Wrestling have only banned one Russian athlete from competing due to a doping ban served a decade ago despite the fact that the McLaren report identified 28 manipulated drugs tests by Russian wrestlers, and the International Weightlifting Federation have ruled out two Russian athletes – however, the IWF can issue a blanket ban on a country if three or more positive tests occur from re-testing samples from the previous two Olympic Games.
Whatever the eventual outcome and whoever does compete from Russia, the whole affair will have left a very bad taste and the issue of doping will again overshadow a major sporting event. Even in arguably the most anticipated event at the Olympics, the men’s 100 meter final, doping will take centre-stage if there is another Bolt vs Gatlin showdown.
If you are an athlete or athlete support personnel and find yourself in a similar situation, Fisher Jones Greenwood LLP can help in this very niche area of the law. We can advise athletes and athlete support personnel throughout the course of anti-doping proceedings and provide expert representation. We are also able to assist National Governing Bodies meet their regulatory duties and ensure that their anti-doping rules, practices and procedures are in line with UK Anti-Doping’s. For expert advice on anti-doping, please contact us.