The report from the independent commission of the World Anti-Doping Agency on drug abuse in Russian athletics is devastating. It amounts not only to an indictment of Russia’s entire system. Its publication marks a dark day in modern athletics. Millions of amateur athletes and spectators — not to mention top-level sportspeople who eschew drugs — have been betrayed.
While Fifa, world football’s governing body, has been ripped apart by scandal and arrests over the past year, corruption there did not affect the outcome of football’s great sporting contests. The same cannot be said of the scandal now engulfing athletics.
The Wada report revealed not just widespread doping among Russian athletes, but a systematic effort at collusion and intimidation by the national authorities. It found Russian officials pressured athletes to use drugs or lose the right to compete at the top level. Deplorably, some allegedly then extorted money from athletes in return for hushing up positive tests.
The report alleges Russia’s secret police, the FSB, was closely involved in the management and intimidation of Russia’s main anti-doping laboratory. It exposes a fusion of remnants of Soviet-era practices, when sport was treated as a means of promoting national glory, with the cancerous corruption of the post-Soviet system.
Moscow and Russian media have been quick to claim that this is all the product of a western conspiracy against Russia. This kind of accusatory smokescreen is now a familiar part of the modus operandi of President Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
But not everybody in Russia emerges discredited. The inquiry would not have been possible without the co-operation of courageous Russian whistleblowers, who deserve acknowledgment. Wada has made the explosive recommendation that Russia should be suspended from all track-and-field competition, including the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. This recommendation is very harsh. It would inevitably penalise some innocent athletes. But it is unavoidable. It is barely credible that Russia can reform its system in time for next year’s games.
Such a step might also be a powerful deterrent to others. Richard Pound, who headed the investigative commission, has warned Russia may be the tip of the iceberg, and that other countries — and sports — may be found to have engaged in similar practices. Indeed, there are already accusations that the intertwining of doping and corruption extends outside Russia’s borders.
Wada’s report redacted a section on allegations that Lamine Diack, former president of the International Association of Athletics Federations, accepted bribes in return for covering up doping results, pending the findings of a French investigation. Mr Diack and two other former senior IAAF officials were arrested last week.
Reforming athletics now falls to Mr Diack’s successor, Sebastian Coe, who has stumbled on the starting line. He was too quick to condemn and dismiss doping allegations aired by Germany’s ARD television as a “declaration of war” on athletics. His response to the Wada report has been unconvincing.
Lord Coe was one of the most outstanding modern Olympians and organised, in London 2012, one of the most successful Olympics of recent years. Reforming his sport would be a victory that would more than match his athletic exploits. But the former track star has yet to prove he is not too conflicted by his close ties to both the sport and business of athletics to be capable of leading a determined effort to stamp out doping and associated corruption — in Russia and elsewhere.