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Are Russian drug cheats at the Olympics? Here’s what we know

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TOKYO — Russia’s controversial presence at the 2021 Olympics exploded to the fore here on Friday, with athletes in two sports either explicitly or implicitly referencing the state-sponsored doping scheme that, technically, has Russia “banned” from these Games.

U.S. swimmer Ryan Murphy, after finishing second to Russia’s Evgeny Rylov in the 200-meter backstroke, said that the race was “probably not clean.”

Great Britain’s Luke Greenbank, the bronze medalist in that event, said: “Obviously it's frustrating, as an athlete, having known that there is a state-sponsored doping program going on.”

U.S. rower Megan Kalmoe, meanwhile, tweeted that a silver medal-winning Russian crew “shouldn’t even be here.”

The question of whether they should, though, is a tricky one, because none of the 300-plus Russian athletes competing in Tokyo have been found guilty of doping. However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t guilty. 

TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 30: Evgeny Rylov of Team ROC reacts after winning the gold medal in the Men's 100m Backstroke Final on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on July 27, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 30: Evgeny Rylov of Team ROC reacts after winning the gold medal in the Men's 100m Backstroke Final on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on July 27, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

What did Russia do?

The Russian government, in an attempt to win international prestige through sport, concocted a complex, systemic, sinister program that allowed Russian athletes to evade doping regulations. The plot included, for example, a hole in the wall of a doping lab, through which officials would swap out dirty samples for clean ones. The scheme peaked in the buildup to the 2014 Winter Olympics, which Russia hosted.

In 2016, the World Anti-Doping Agency commissioned independent attorney Richard McLaren to investigate the program. McLaren found that more than 600 positive samples from athletes across at least 28 different sports had “disappeared.” So there had, clearly, been both widespread performance-enhancing drug use and an extensive cover-up. WADA now describes it as “a centralized doping and anti-detection scheme that had operated in Russia in the period from at least 2011 to 2015.”

What was Russia’s punishment?

Various Russian officials, in both government and sporting positions, received suspensions or permanent bans. With respect to the actual Olympic Games themselves, though, punishments have been largely symbolic.

The country Russia has not been allowed to send official delegations to the last two Olympics, but hundreds of Russian athletes competed in PyeongChang in 2018 as “Olympic Athletes from Russia,” and hundreds are competing in Tokyo under the “Russian Olympic Committee” label.

The final decision on the punishment was made by the Court for Arbitration of Sport (CAS), against WADA recommendations, in late 2020. WADA had sought to bar Russia from all world championships, in all sports, for four years. CAS halved the ban to two years and watered it down.

In the decision, crucially, it said that authorities would allow “any athlete or athlete support personnel from Russia to participate in or attend the Olympic and Paralympic Games (winter or summer) and any world championships organized or sanctioned by a WADA signatory, on the condition that they are not subject to a suspension imposed by a competent authority, that the uniform worn does not contain the flag of the Russian Federation and contains the words “neutral athlete”, and that the Russian national anthem is not played or sung at any official event venue.”

So all Russian athletes are allowed to compete?

Not all of them. Only the ones classified as clean. A variety of Russian athletes, like athletes from other countries, have been convicted of doping over the past five years, since WADA exposed the scheme. Where authorities have been able to prove that an individual athlete used prohibited substances, those athletes have been suspended. And if they are suspended, they cannot compete at the Olympics.

The problem, as anti-doping experts see it, is that the CAS decision shifted the burden of proof away from the athletes — who, many felt, should have been required to prove that they were not involved in the doping program — and onto authorities, who now have to prove that athletes were involved. If they don’t have that proof, the athlete can compete.

And finding proof has been extremely difficult, because Russia either disposed of or altered most of it.

How has Russia’s cover-up impacted anti-doping efforts?

As WADA explains it: “In order to be able to prosecute doping cheats that had benefited from the [scheme], WADA sought access to the Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) of the Moscow Laboratory, as well as the underlying analytical data. For years, access to the data was consistently refused by the Russian authorities.”

WADA, after some negotiating, finally obtained data in January 2019. But, “after a thorough forensic investigation,” a WADA committee concluded that Russian authorities had “deliberately manipulated and deleted parts of the [data].”

The fabrications impeded investigators in at least 145 “target cases” where a Russian athlete was suspected of doping. Because they lacked sufficient evidence, anti-doping authorities had no way to prove those athletes had cheated. So WADA recommended that “Russian athletes and support personnel could only participate in the [Olympics and other major sporting events] if they could demonstrate that they were not implicated by the noncompliance.”

This, to many, seemed like a reasonable recommendation that fell in between the calls from some for a blanket ban on Russian athletes — to truly punish such a brazen and damaging doping plot — and the belief that the up-and-coming generation of Russian athletes should not be punished for their government’s past wrongdoings.

CAS, however, did not adopt that language, and instead ruled that Russians could compete as long as “they are not subject to a suspension imposed by a competent authority.”

So are there Russian drug cheats at the Olympics?

TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 30, 2021: The USA's Ryan Murphy competes in the men's 200m backstroke final during the swimming event at the 2020 Summer Olympic Games, at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Stanislav Krasilnikov/TASS (Photo by Stanislav Krasilnikov\TASS via Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 30, 2021: The USA's Ryan Murphy competes in the men's 200m backstroke final during the swimming event at the 2020 Summer Olympic Games, at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Stanislav Krasilnikov/TASS (Photo by Stanislav Krasilnikov\TASS via Getty Images)

We don’t know and might never know. And that’s what is so “frustrating” to swimmers like Murphy.

What we know is that there are Russian athletes, likely dozens of active ones, who benefitted from the state-sponsored scheme. There is no way to know, exactly, who cheated, but they are out there. And the knowledge that they are out there — perhaps competing against you, perhaps not — is what Murphy described as a “mental drain,” and why he felt compelled to speak up.

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