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McLaren Report: For Years, International Sports Competitions Unknowingly Hijacked by Russians

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International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach and Russian president Vladimir Putin. Photo: Robert Deutsch, USA Today Sports

Russia’s denials of what Richard McLaren’s investigation has termed an “institutionalized doping conspiracy” feel more hollow than ever after the revelations that more than 1,000 athletes across summer, winter and Paralympic sports “benefited from manipulations.”

The robustness of McLaren’s methods has clearly been demonstrated. As he was at pains to point out, these were not based on witness testimony but forensic examination of the evidence. There is DNA evidence aplenty – male DNA comingled with female in a single sample (“a scientific impossibility”, says McLaren, as if such commentary were required).

There was found to be evidence of “physiologically impossible” levels of salt and even coffee granules in the suspect urine, apparently there to match the color of the dirty samples replaced. McLaren’s team also went to the extent of fashioning specific tools to break in to sample bottles to discover whether it was even possible to do so. This uncovered how microscopic scratches and marks, invisible to the naked eye, would be left on the inside of bottles. These marks were precisely consistent with those found in the samples believed to have been tampered with.

The people perpetrating these acts of sporting fraud were termed “magicians,” but more prosaically they were agents in the FSB, Russia’s secret service. This involvement of state institutions certainly points to the allegation this was an “institutional conspiracy within an organized infrastructure.”

Yet still, disappointingly, senior figures within Russian and international sport continue to protest against the findings. In the minutes after its release, Dimitry Svishchev, a member of the Duma and the head of Russia’s curling federation, reflexively described the report as “baseless allegations.” Yelena Isinbayeva, the former champion pole vaulter, had previously dismissed McLaren’s first findings as leading to suspension “without proof, insolently, crudely [without the] chance to justify ourselves.”

Isinbayeva has been an outspoken critic of the World Anti-Doping Agency. Now she will chair the board overseeing reforms at RUSADA. Indeed she is not the only person closing her eyes and ears to the extent of the scandal to be rewarded with a position of seniority and influence in the future of Russian sport.

Although McLaren has found no direct evidence of Vitaly Mutko’s involvement, he noted that at the height of the scandal information was provided to the ministry and “like in any hierarchical organization, information flows upwards.” Mutko was the minister of sport then, with his deputy directly in charge of the doping regime. Now he is Russia’s deputy prime minister.

This could have future implications. Russia is the host nation for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and we simply have to place our faith in Mutko et al that it can be trusted in that heavy responsibility. But if that faith is not to be abused, there needs to be a wholesale shift in attitudes within one of sport’s most prominent nations.

“There’s a certain embedded cultural aspect to what was going on and so it means it probably does need a cultural change,” said McLaren. “It doesn’t mean it can’t be done but it may take time.”

The process for that shift in culture and attitudes is clearly only just beginning and it is hampered by Russia’s sense of injustice at the scrutiny it has been placed under. As Isinbayeva’s comments indicate, Russia feels like it has been made a scapegoat. Given the geopolitical credit associated with Olympic sporting success, the incentives to cheat run very deep, and not only in Russia. Is it fair for us to assume that Russia stands alone among sporting nations in its attempts to dope? I asked McLaren precisely this.

He said: “[A doping regime] is not an easy process, you can’t create it in a matter of a few days. There were a lot of people coordinating the activity. To suggest it is happening anywhere else in the world, perhaps it is, perhaps not. I have no information.”

This lack of information is of itself a problem. The fact that there was apparently table salt and instant coffee appearing undetected in urine samples undermines the credibility of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s processes. Russia has a reasonable grievance here. The fact is, the credibility of sport is at stake. “For years, international sports competitions have unknowingly been hijacked by Russians,” said McLaren. “A number of people have been deceived: the competitors without an even playing field, the fans with results that can be deceptive.”

If that undermines the integrity perception of our industry, then what do we have left to trade on? This is a threat that must be addressed. WADA must be properly resourced to conduct investigations as robust as McLaren’s into all nations’ doping samples. But there must also be a clear and credible response to those who attempt to game other elements of the system.

For example, Russia has understandably delighted in the revelations about widespread Therapeutic Use Exemptions among high-profile athletes in other countries. For sport to be truly credible, these too must be subjected to the same scrutiny that has led to so many Russians being stripped of their medals.

However, the first move must be for everyone to accept the scientific basis for McLaren’s findings. It is time to take stock of the potential consequences for sport and time to accept that things must change, in Russia and for those who police the system globally. McLaren’s words on this were compelling. “Over the past few months we have seen infighting between many different actors within International Federations and among the anti-doping world,” he said. “I find it difficult to understand why we are not on the same team. We should all be working together to end doping in sports.”

He is quite right. Those who resist such measures, in Russia and abroad, must think hard about what it truly means. Politics and bickering cannot be allowed to cloud the necessary next steps, for sport’s commercial future is at stake.

By Matt Scott for the Sport Intern

This story first appeared in the blog, The Sport Intern. The editor is Karl-Heinz Huba of Lorsch, Germany. He can be reached at ISMG@aol.com. The article is reprinted here with permission of Huba. 

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