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Court of Arbitration for Sport Reduces Russian Ban from Four Years to Two

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Hope springs eternal when it comes to contemporary matters in the former Soviet Union. Just like Susan Collins’s buoyant “I hope the President has learned his lesson” after Donald Trump’s first impeachment—stemming from his do ut das with Ukraine—so the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) continues to believe that the Russian government’s on-going violations of its laws are just an aberration, correctable each time by toothless bans and meaningless sanctions. But as we have seen, Trump’s behavior—fashioned by decades of flouting legal restrictions—didn’t change one iota. The same is true in Putin’s Russia.

On December 17, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) reduced WADA’s latest ban on Russia’s participation in Olympic and world championship events from four years to two. Although WADA president Witold Bańka tried to put a good spin on it, condemnation has been overwhelming. Travis Tygart, chief executive of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, was infuriated by the ruling: “[the Russians] have been given chance after chance after chance. [The 2018 Winter Olympics in] Pyeongchang didn’t change their behavior, and we know that because they manipulated their database after that. So to be given yet another weak and loop-hole riddled outcome is just a tragedy for the overall global effort.”

But as we have seen, Trump’s behavior—fashioned by decades of flouting legal restrictions—didn’t change one iota. The same is true in Putin’s Russia.

In Russia, on the other hand, any attempt by WADA to rein in the country’s blatant abuse of anti-doping restrictions has been associated with a western plot to undermine Russian prestige. Within the country, any admission of guilt is tantamount to treason. Just ten days before this latest WADA ruling, one of Russia’s most decorated cross-country skiers and biathletes, Anfisa Reztsova, created a furor when she described in detail how Soviet athletes received steroid formulations and engaged in blood-doping at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary as well as the dire situation surrounding post-USSR biathlete Sergei Tarasov’s near-death from tainted blood at the Albertville Games in 1992. Censure was vigorous and immediate, forcing Reztsova to issue a clarification and partial retraction the very next day.

Reztsova’s revelations about Soviet blood-doping and steroid schemes merely confirms the suspicions of US Ski and Snowboard Hall of Famer Marty Hall who, as head coach for the Canadian cross-country ski team, called out the Russians thirty-two years ago at the very start of the Calgary Games. His remarks instigated a turbulent reaction all around the world. Just like Reztsova earlier this month, Hall was forced to issue a retraction, but ever since he has maintained his belief that the USSR and post-Communist Russia have been involved in doping protocols. In the late 1960s, Hall began to suspect that Scandinavian, Finnish, and Eastern bloc skiers were blood-doping but could never find definitive proof. Subsequent research has shown that his suspicions were spot-on. Scientists behind the Iron Curtain honed their own blood-doping and steroid programs over the ensuing decades, denying all the while that they were doing so. Success at the Olympic Games and World Championships was spectacular right up to the disintegration of the USSR in 1991.

In Russia, on the other hand, any attempt by WADA to rein in the country’s blatant abuse of anti-doping restrictions has been associated with a western plot to undermine Russian prestige.

Expectations that Russian athletes would continue to demonstrate superiority at international competition outlasted the Soviet Union. Vladimir Putin—with his eye on annexing Crimea—made certain that Russian domination at the 2014 Sochi Olympics would cast a rosy glow over his geopolitical machinations. Blood-doping was rife there and tampering with control samples taken from athletes was systematic. Caught out by the revelations of Grigorii Rodchenkov, head of Russia’s antidoping lab at the Sochi Games, WADA imposed tepid sanctions that had little effect on curbing the nation’s on-going disdain for international standards. Stripped of results and medals won at Sochi, a group of eight convicted Russian skiers continued to insist they had done nothing wrong. After a bank of appeals, CAS overturned their WADA convictions in 2018.

Max Cobb, CEO of the United States Biathlon Association and Executive Board Member of the International Biathlon Union, has been an advocate for stricter controls on doping and serious consequences for their transgression for decades. In response to the Court of Arbitration’s recent decision, Cobb commented:

I think it’s a sign the system is broken. Despite tremendous progress in the two decades since WADA was founded—brought about by diligent work of anti-doping organizations around the world—the global sports system failed in the face of the most devastating assault on Olympic and Paralympic sport in history. Sport and the Olympic and Paralympic Games were hijacked by depraved Russian government officials: not to celebrate our common humanity, but in a cynical attempt to use doped athletes as pawns in a global propaganda campaign. Make no mistake, doping is a form of athlete abuse and those who enable it have only one place they belong: prison.

Perhaps we have arrived at the point where incarceration of some sort will be required to counteract the continued flagrant disregard of the norms, laws, and protocols of society, whether in the realm of politics or sport.

*Featured photo by Kristine Wook.


William D. Frank is the author of Everyone to Skis! Skiing in Russia and the Rise of Soviet Biathlon. His articles have appeared in The Boston Globe, The Journal of Sport History, Ski History Magazine and Pacific Northwest Quarterly.

This book was published under Cornell University Press’s NIU Press imprint. Find out more.

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