Taylor Hooton Foundation > Hoot’s Corner > General > Winter Olympics: plagued with doping?
April 4, 2016
Winter Olympics: plagued with doping?

OSLO — World sport resembles a failed state.

Soccer’s ruling body offers indictments and perp walks, and Qatar stands exposed for using something akin to slave labor to build stadiums for the 2022 World Cup. Brazil — plagued by a severe recession, corruption and Zika, a scary new virus — will host an obscenely expensive Summer Olympics.

Fifteen months ago, a German documentarian, Hajo Seppelt, in “The Secrets of Doping: How Russia Makes Its Winners,” unveiled a world of athletic doping in track and field. Russian athletes spoke of extortion, thuggery and the state-sponsored doping of “99 percent” of athletes.

The World Anti-Doping Agency, which knew of these allegations for years and did nothing, was forced into action. Investigators found sweeping corruption in track and field, and not just in Russia. The International Olympic Committee, a body happiest when somnolent and counting its cash, felt compelled to threaten Russia with suspension from the Olympics.

Now a new question arises: Will the antidoping agency turn its investigative beams on winter sport, where the rot is probably just as pervasive?

That prospect appears not to thrill Sir Craig Reedie, the longtime president of the antidoping agency. He notes that the agency has suspended the Moscow lab and issued lifetime bans for a few officials. He also doles out improbable compliments to corruption-tainted Russian sports officials even as he issues throat-clearing statements about needing more evidence of Russian doping.

 “If concrete evidence comes to light,” he said recently, “and the evidence warrants further investigation, I will not hesitate to act.”

Once, this sort of response would have left reform stillborn. Executives and coaches, in the West no less than the East, viewed revelations of doping as a threat to profits and ratings.

But world-class athletes are turning a withering fire on sports’ ruling bodies. WADA, they insist, must clean out the winter stables. “The clean athletes of the world feel this is the moment of truth,” Beckie Scott, an Olympic gold medal cross-country skier, said. “So WADA, are you a credible organization, or not?”

Sir Craig Reedie is the president of the World Anti-Doping Agency.  LAURENT GILLIERON / KEYSTONE, VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS

I flew to Norway for the world championships in biathlon, which is the most televised winter sport in Europe and Russia, to observe the front lines of this struggle between athletes and reformers, and the feckless executives of sport.

Biathlon’s Shadow

The cross-country skiers sweep downhill through a mist of seemingly perpetual snow, their knees bent low, heads pointed forward like the prows of ships. Tens of thousands of Norwegian fans, who have stood in 25-degree temperatures group-singing oldies rock hits and waving grinding wooden noisemakers, cheer for Norwegians and foreign competitors alike.

The skiers lean sharply to the right at the bottom of the hill, and pull target rifles off their backs. Their chests heaving, they steady their arms and take aim at shooting targets 50 meters away.

Each target hit is met with a roar of approval, each miss with a groan. Errant shooters embark on time-eating penalty loops while the sure shots sprint off on another exhausting loop.

This is biathlon, a thrilling sport that draws on the endurance needed to cross-country ski along steep tracks and the idiosyncratic Zen needed to target shoot while gasping for air. To watch athletes glide past the finish line after a 20-kilometer race and fall to their hands and knees, steam rising off their bodies like so many geysers, is to harbor no doubt about their skill and effort.

Biathlon is also shadowed by doping.

Endurance is central to this sport, and the ability to pump extra oxygen to one’s blood is as attractive as adding high-test gasoline to a racing car. A young Russian biathlete recently tested positive for meldonium, the same drug that could lead to a lengthy suspension for the tennis star Maria Sharapova after she admitted using it.

Russians appear to be among the worst and perhaps the most systemic dopers. By no means, however, are they the sole offenders. Six Austrian cross-country skiers and biathletes were caught doping at the Olympics in Turin in 2006 and barred for life. Swedes, Latvians, Poles and Germans were caught at the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014. In 1987, a top American Nordic-combined skier, Kerry Lynch, was caught blood-doping with the approval of his coach, Jim Page.

Page was suspended but later became a managing director at the United States Olympic Committee.

Gottlieb Taschler, an Italian who still sits on the board of the international biathlon union, stands accused in Italy of obtaining EPO, an illegal blood oxygen agent, for his own son, an aspiring biathlete. (Taschler appears to have made a family peace with doping; his daughter is married to a well-known Austrian cross-country skier who was busted for doping in the middle of the 2014 Olympics.)

Early one morning, I talked of sport and doping with one of the better American biathletes, Lowell Bailey. We sat in a hotel on Holmenkollen, the large ski-jumping hill that rises over Oslo and its glittering fjord. In a few minutes, Bailey would embark on his circuit of grueling training loops.

A lithe athlete and a musician skilled on the mandolin and guitar, Bailey was raised in the mountains and dells of the Adirondacks in New York and has skied biathlon for a decade. He finds poetry in its intricacies.

Years back, the American team hired a well-regarded Swedish coach. Bailey and his friend Tim Burke, perhaps the best American biathlete, looked at the coach’s training regimen, with the many hours of grueling up-and-downs. They thought: This is insane.

Then they shrugged and gave it a go.

“We had the realization that to compete with the world’s best, you have to train like they do, think like they do and approach your life in biathlon like they do,” he says. “It was life-changing.”

I ask about doping. He recognizes that a shadow of doubt hangs across all of those who participate in winter sports, no less than summer. Can he spot an athlete who has doped? He nods tentatively; sometimes. There was a marvelous German-Spanish cross-country skier in 2002, Johann Mühlegg. Bailey remembers watching him race in the Winter Olympics. The skier took the steepest hills like a pile driver.

“In his last climb of the 30K, I thought: This isn’t possible,” Bailey says. “When he tested positive, no surprise. I saw that coming.”

More often, the clues are less obvious. “It’s disorienting,” Bailey says. “You watch a great athletic feat and wonder if other forces are at work.”

Bailey serves on the athletic advisory committee for the International Biathlon Union; he wants lifetime bans for individual athletes and far bigger fines for national sports federations. No American biathlete has ever tested positive for doping, which does not entirely erase the smudge of doubt.

Last year, International Biathlon fined Russia $106,000 because three top biathletes had tested dirty. That amount, Bailey noted, is perhaps 1 percent of Russia’s budget for biathlon.

He shakes his head.

“This is my career, my life, I’m living this 24 hours a day,” he says. “As an athlete, the idea that I’m competing on a level playing field sustains me.

“Are we supposed to say, ‘Oh well, that’s just the way it is?’” He looks up. “That’s offensive to me on a very, very personal level.”

Biathlon, like so many Olympic pursuits, is at war with itself. It has produced insistent voices for reform, like the Canadian doctor James Carrabre, who is on the board of international biathlon, and Max Cobb, president of the U.S. Biathlon Association. Both have pushed for more rigorous tests and the use of biological passports, which allow scientists to monitor individual blood levels. They also want WADA to launch a full investigation.

“To allow accusations of massive, state-supported doping fraud to go uninvestigated sends a signal that doping is just part of a game rather than a plague,” Cobb told me.

 Then there is Anders Besseberg, a Norwegian who has ruled as president of the International Biathlon Union since 1992. He has fielded congratulatory phone calls from President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. Ask about corruption at the Russian labs, and he talks as if the problem is the overheated imaginations of reformers.

“I must say that I’ll be very surprised if one laboratory has managed to cheat.”

Ah, Anders. You must steel yourself better against surprise.

Investigators for the World Anti-Doping Agency found nothing to like about those Russian labs. “The Moscow laboratory is not operationally independent from … the Ministry of Sport,” the report stated. “Its impartiality, judgment and integrity were compromised by” the secret police who walk the halls and intimidate athletes and doctors.

Max Cobb, left, president of Biathlon USA, and Dr. Ed Merrens, team doctor for Biathlon USA. Cobb has pushed for more rigorous drug tests and the use of biological passports, which allow scientists to monitor individual blood levels.


It is too easy to fall into cynicism’s ditch and ignore the thousands of world-class athletes who compete clean. Scott, chairwoman of the athlete committee for the World Anti-Doping Agency, takes this war personally. A Canadian cross-country skier, she finished third behind two Russian athletes in the five-kilometer pursuit at the Salt Lake Olympics in 2002. She took home a bronze medal.

A year later, investigators proved that the silver medal winner had tested positive before the Olympics for darbepoetin, which boosts the production of the red blood cells that trundle oxygen to the muscles. The silver medal was given to Scott in a small ceremony.

The gold medal winner, too, had tested positive for darbepoetin, but that legal battle was epic. The International Olympic Committee argued, bizarrely, that floodgates of litigation would open if it awarded the gold to Scott. A court overruled the I.O.C. and, at a ceremony in Vancouver in June 2004, Scott, in tears, held aloft her gold medal.

“It was a very powerful moment, and a little bittersweet,” she recalled.

Scott and Sarah Konrad, a former American biathlete and athlete representative to the United States Olympic Committee, have written tough letters to Reedie, tossing down the gauntlet. “The athletes of the world are watching and waiting,” Konrad warned.

Reedie replied with a letter caught in the no-man’s land between vaguely conciliatory and condescending. He stated that he alone would decide, in due time and if new allegations came forward, if further investigation was needed. (He apparently missed the considerable pile of evidence about winter sports compiled by his own investigators.)

“At the end of the day, I don’t think anybody in Russia is happy with what happened,” Reedie said recently in Switzerland. “I’m actually quite pleased with the reaction we’ve had from Russia.”

This was the sound of a man doubling down on willful blindness.

Russian Misbehavior

The doping agency report, the documentaries and interviews with federation officials depict Russian sports as a hybrid of a spy novel and a mafia tell-all.

No nation has poured more money than Russia into winter sports, and it fiercely protects its traditional bastions in biathlon and cross-country skiing. The government recruits wealthy businessmen to oversee the various winter sports, and few expenses are spared, from grand hotels to exercise bikes on the road to large coaching staffs. And then there’s the question of chemistry: For decades, the doping agency report noted, the Russians have maintained a secret lab at the Ministry of Sport dedicated to the development of “undetectable” drugs.

Carrabre, the International Biathlon Union reformer and doctor, spoke of the challenge of detective work in this environment. In 2009, he suspected Russians biathletes were doping with EPO, which is a synthetic cousin of a hormone that promotes the production of red blood cells. “They were all but laughing at us, and telling us we’d never catch them,” he said.

 He obtained blood samples from the athletes and sought out an outside laboratory. Upon painstaking inspection, technicians detected the subtlest of structural anomalies, a difference that unequivocally pointed to cheating.

Holy cow, Carrabre said, “we had ourselves a new form of EPO.”

The pressure on Russian athletes to dope is immense. Athletes who refuse to dope are told that they risk getting left off national teams and denied access to the best coaches. Those who play along get advance notice of tests. If urine samples come back dirty, athletes can pay bribes and results disappear.

World doping agency investigators told the director of the main Moscow laboratory to preserve 1,400 urine samples from the Sochi Olympics. The director destroyed them.

“In other countries, it’s rogue athletes,” Cobb, the president of U.S. Biathlon, told me. “Here, it’s a rogue state apparatus.”

There are darker shades. Alexander Tikhonov was a former gold medal biathlete and a chief of Russia’s federation. A few years ago, he ran for the presidency of the international union. Alas, Tikhonov had an extracurricular problem: He had been found guilty of paying $180,000 to persuade men to murder a local governor.

He was sentenced to three years but immediately released under an amnesty law passed by the Russian parliament. Candidate Tikhonov ran as an unlikely reformer, promising to sweep out corruption. “What else was he supposed to say?” noted Carrabre, who ran against Tikhonov. “It’s difficult to run when you’ve been convicted of planning a murder.”

Mikhail D. Prokhorov, who owns the Brooklyn Nets, succeeded Tikhonov as president of Russian Biathlon and has poured many millions of dollars into the sport. He proclaimed himself incurious about his predecessor’s conviction. “I’m not a judge. I’m not a prosecutor,” he said in 2010. “I don’t know the details.”

Mortality is a hound chasing on the heels of housecleaning in Russia. A former general director of the much-investigated Russia Anti-Doping Agency, or Rusada, died unexpectedly in early February. The cause remains unknown.

A recent chief of Rusada, Nikita Kamayev, resigned under pressure in November. A few weeks later, he sent an email to a reporter at The Times of London. “I want to write a book about the true story of sport pharmacology and doping since 1987 while being a young scientist working in a secret lab in the U.S.S.R. Institute of Sport Medicine,” he wrote. “I have information and facts that have never been known.”

In mid-February, Kamayev, 52, died after cross-country skiing, allegedly of a heart attack. “It’s a very unexpected death,” Vitaly Mutko, Russian’s minister of sport, noted.

I’m sure it was.

This perhaps underlines why the Russian whistle-blowers, a husband and wife, who told all to the German documentary crew, remain in hiding in Western Europe. (WADA has agreed to help underwrite the couple’s hidden exile.)

Meanwhile, Russia has prospered on the snowy fields of sport. In the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010, the Russians claimed only three gold medals. At Sochi in 2014, they won 13 gold medals. In the final race of that Olympics, the 50-kilometer cross-country race, three midlevel Russian athletes unexpectedly took the hat trick, winning the gold, silver and bronze medals.

That was brilliant.

Conflicting Outlooks

I asked a spokesman for WADA about the investigative outlook, as the antidoping agency and the I.O.C. consider whether to ban Russia from the Summer Olympics. Just last week, The Times of London reported on the case of Sergei Portugalov. He is a prominent Russian doctor who was chief of the Russian Athletic Federation’s Medical Commission. WADA accused him of personally injecting athletes and levied a lifetime ban on him. Now, he is reported to be working with Russia’s Olympic swimmers; for the best results, The Times of London has reported, he recommended the swimmers embrace a rigorous doping program.

As with winter sports, the world antidoping agency so far has declined to start an investigation of swimming.

The WADA spokesman emailed me Reedie’s statement in Switzerland: “If seemingly solid allegations/intelligence is brought forward to WADA, and/or by whistle-blowers, then we would seriously evaluate the need for further investigations.”

That is a fierce watchdog.

On my last morning in Oslo, I sat atop that mountain with Susan Dunklee, a 30-year-old who came to biathlon after a career as an all-American cross-country skier at Dartmouth. Her material rewards are small. “A lot of it for me is cultivating my hunger,” she says, “and my joy.”

She had watched that German documentary, and read the doping agency reports, and felt that shadow creeping over all of them.

“I’ve been shocked to learn that the system is not in place to enforce a genuine competition,” she says. “We need to strongly encourage WADA to grow teeth.”

That doesn’t seem to be a lot to ask.