Russia has admitted that more than 1,000 of its athletes were involved in extensive doping which was covered up between 2011 and 2015. However, officials from the country’s anti-doping agency are insisting that the campaign of cheating was not sponsored by the state.
The agency’s head Anna Antseliovich described what happened as an “institutional conspiracy”. The veteran sports official Vitaly Smirnov, a former Russian Olympic committee chief appointed by president Vladimir Putin to clean up Russia’s anti-doping system has said, “We made a lot of mistakes”.
These statements deserve to be welcomed warmly by world sport. The sheer extent of the cheating uncovered this summer in two enquiries by the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) was deeply depressing for international athletes who had sought to win by mere dedication, training and prowess. Blood samples had been manipulated at the London Olympics in 2012, at the 2013 World Athletics meeting in Moscow and the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
The initial response from the Kremlin to the doping allegations had been an outright denial. The charges were politically motivated and Washington was behind them. When Putin announced his own inquiry, it looked as if he was out to prove his country innocent of the scandal.
For Russia to now admit this extraordinary campaign of wrongdoing is important. Antseliovich is insisting that cheating was not organized by the sports ministry. The Wada investigation found that officials from the FSB, the successor to the KGB of which President Putin was once a member, had been involved in the manipulation of samples at the Sochi Olympics.
If Antseliovich is correct in claiming there was no official collusion, then Moscow has another problem apart from the cheating itself. The Kremlin has to be asking itself how sports officials, appointed and paid for by the state, could embark upon their campaign of dishonesty under the noses of government officials. If they knowingly played no part in this huge conspiracy, then they were surely deeply incompetent not to discover it. A no less difficult question is how members of the state intelligence organization could have become involved without senior echelons in the spy agency knowing what was going on.
From the point of view of international sport, the admission that one of the world’s largest athletics competitors has cheated on a massive scale suggests a complex unraveling of past results. But maybe the argument will prevail that we are where we are and the huge effort needed to unmask historic cheating would be better deployed in ensuring that such an extraordinary web of dishonesty and deceit cannot occur again.
There will be those who protest that the Russian admission of cheating is a cynical ploy to avoid the odium of being banned from future prestigious sporting events, as they were banned from this year’s Rio Olympics. Such claims themselves carry a heavy dose of cynicism. There is every reason to want Russian athletes back competing on the world stage. Power politics and big money have inflicted major damage to a whole raft of sports. Athletics, perhaps more than any other contest, is the ultimate test of skill and ferocious dedication. World-class athletes want to pit themselves against every other top athlete in the world. Dope-free Russian athletes should not be excluded from those competitions.