Russia, doping and Rio 2016

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Doping issues have been front and centre during the build up to the 2016 Olympic Games, even more so than previous years. Along with Zika, water quality and questions around the readiness of the host cities facilities, drugs have threatened to scupper Rio 2016 before it has begun.

track and field

Usually the roster of  athletes from each country is known and publisised prior to the games.  This week shoudl involve discussion on gold medal certs as well as outside medal hopefuls. Talk is of who is in form or progressing nicely. However, we are into the last few days before the games and it is still unclear which Russians will be allowed to compete!  It has clearly not been the best build up and dispite claims the Russia situation will not devalue the games it is hard to see how it will not do so. How and why have we got to this point? Two weeks ago an independant report was released, prepared by Professor McLaren for the World Anti Doping Agency. Prof McLaren investigated allegations of Russian intereference in anti doping processes at the Sochi winter Olympics in 2014. The report was damning. The three main allegations were:

  • The Russian Ministry of Sport coordinated a programme to protect their key athletes,
  • The WADA accredited Sochi and Moscow labs poured away urine samples that were suspicious and replaced them with clean urine,
  • There was a system of ‘disppearing positives’ – positive test results were simple changed to negative for reporting to the outside world.

The two most concerning to me where the collusion of the laboratories in the processes around swapping samples and the changing of results.  These totally go against the thought that the labs are independant, there to protect the clean athletes against rampant doping and should be beyond reproach in their behaviour. Not so. These revelations, along with previous impropriety means to me that there is no way to view all Russian athletes as tainted.  The McLaren report contained the figure shown below, indicating the scale of the problem. It shows the 623 test results which were “disappeared” in a variety of sports over the 3 year period 2012-2015.




So the International Olympic Committe banned Russia from competeing at Rio right?

Erm no. Why not you say? Good question. The IOC have decided that Russians could compete if they had been drug tested outside of Russia in the last six months, were not named in the McLaren report and make themsolves available for any out of competition testing deemed appriopriate immediately.

How far can a country now push it and not face a total ban from international sport?drug free

The athletics governing body, the IAAF, previously decided that no Russians will compete in track and field at Rio. This is also due to previous reports linking athletics to doping scandels in Russia. Now the other sports are having to screen all Russian athletes prior to the games starting this week.

Who is allowed to compete then?


The IOC now has announced a three point plan for Russians. Firstly each governing body will make a decision on whether they think the athlete has been tested enough outside of Russia. They can approve them and move to test 2: no previous doping conviction. The third test is then to have the above scrutinized by a three person panel chosen from the IOC Executive Board.


The British Olympic Comittee previously used a similar rule to test 2, but was overturned on legal advice prior to the 2012 games.  As a rule it would only be fair to Russia if applied to all nations surely? This now creates a very difficult situation possibly open to legal challenge. I can think of examples such as cyclist Ilnur Zakarin who will not be allowed to compete in the mens road race, having served a two year ban for using steroids as a 19 year old. However one of the favourites for the same race is Alejandro Valverde of Spain, a rather unrepentant doper having served a two year ban related to Operation Puerto.  There are lots of other examples of such a double standard (two time drug cheat Justin Gatlin for example).

So what now for anti doping?

Two questions I get asked frequently are “does testing work?” and “how effective is testing?”. We know that many athletes are getting away with doping before being caught, or getting away with it for some/all of their careers. I previsouly reported figures suggesting 14-39% of professional athletes were doping (see link here) and annually the total positive test rate is around 2%. To me this shows that athletes are not being tested at the times they are doping or the tests are not sensitive enough for the doping that is going on now. If athletes are using smaller frequent dosing (microdosing) the effect may not be large enough to detect using the biological passport.  This gives athletes a small level of ‘allowed’ doping before they are caught.  The tests will continue getting more sensitive – as the retesting of samples frozen from 2008 and 2012 games has shown.  This gives a greater chance to detect cheating. This isn’t the answer though, that’s just continuing the same but a little better over time. Is it time for a bigger shake up?  The war on drugs, war on terror and war on doping – all have failed so far to end the target of their war.

Where do we go from here then? It is clear the system in Russia didn’t work. The only way to ensure this doesn’t happen again is to have labs and anti doping agencies entirely free from state interference.  Anti doping must also be entirely free from the sports promotion aspects too. Why would a governing body of a sport want to see their best athletes (who pull the money in for them) banned prior to a big competition?

Once independance is guarenteed, along with appropriate levels of funding, then a rethink on the procedures is requireed.

Who is being tested? Why is it all low level rugby players being banned, isn’t that a waste of meagre resources?

What are they being tested for? Rationalise the banned list, make it clear only things that have a lasting and proven performance effect are prohibited.


I have a few thoughts on things that might shake it up – maybe I’ll get a chance in the next little while to write them up…


Thanks for reading – enjoy the games.  I hope  this time the medals awarded here are still with the same athletes in 6 years time!


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About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. He is currently the subject lead for chemistry and forensic science at Sheffield Hallam University. He's managed hundreds of forensic toxicology cases, and is an experienced court witness. He has specialist expertise in forensic toxicology and drug testing in sport. And yes... he watches CSI.