The top levels of track and field and road racing have been rocked in recent weeks by accusations of a widespread doping scandal, bribery, and corruption.
In October came the news that Kenyan marathoner Rita Jeptoo had tested positive for erythropoietin (EPO). Yesterday, the United States Anti-Doping Association (USADA) announced that Tyson Gay’s coach, Jon Drummond, who had chaired a USA Track & Field committee, has been given an eight-year doping ban from the sport.
Additional news reports suggest that Jeptoo’s and Gay’s cases are just the tip of the iceberg for track and field and road racing. The bad news has been coming so quickly that it’s been difficult to keep up. Here’s a guide to recent accusations of officially sanctioned performance-enhancing drug use and related matters.
Documentary Accuses Russia of Widespread Doping…
On December 3, a German television station aired a documentary, “The Secrets of Doping: How Russia Makes Its Winners,” by German journalist Hajo Seppelt. The documentary accuses Russia of widespread systematic doping, including an estimate from banned discus thrower Yevgeniya Pecherina that 99 percent of the athletes on the Russian national track and field team are doping. (The documentary is viewable with English subtitles here: part one, part two, part three, part four, and an English transcript is available.)
According to Seppelt, those who are responsible for keeping the sport clean in Russia are, instead, providing drugs and helping athletes either not test positive for drugs or cover up positive tests. Seppelt and his sources report that athletes who do not go along with the doping system quickly disappear into obscurity; some say that speaking out about the system puts their lives in danger.
Seppelt’s documentary includes footage, taken with a hidden cell phone camera, which is allegedly of Olympic and World Championship 800-meter champion Mariya Savinova speaking openly about her doping practices. Savinova has never been banned for doping.
…And the Russian Federation of Blackmailing Top Marathoner
Just before the documentary aired, L’Equipe published a story, based on testimony from Liliya Shobukhova’s agent, claiming that the banned marathoner and two-time World Marathon Majors winner had paid the Russian federation 450,000 euros in bribes to keep an adverse finding on her biological passport from being made public prior to the 2012 Olympics.
Shobukhova confirmed this information to Seppelt on camera, and said that after her positive test was made public, the federation refunded 300,000 euros to her account. She and her husband provided documents suggesting that Valentin Balakhnichev, president of the All-Russia Athletic Federation and treasurer of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), track and field’s governing body, was involved in the transaction and was therefore aware of the bribery.
This is not Seppelt’s first time reporting on a doping scandal. In 2012, his reporting helped uncover the possibility of widespread doping in Kenya. Partially as a result of Seppelt’s reporting, the World Marathon Majors (WMM) began contributing money to help the IAAF to increase the frequency of its testing in Kenya and other countries that haven’t traditionally been able to afford their own anti-doping programs.
The WMM’s Nick Bitel told the New York Times that, without the funding the organization provided, it’s likely that Jeptoo’s positive out-of-competition test would not have been conducted. Therefore, Seppelt’s reporting may have indirectly led to Jeptoo’s positive test.
As a result of the allegations made by the documentary, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has announced that it is forming an independent commission headed by former WADA President Dick Pound that will look into all of the allegations.
The Guardian has reported that Gabriel Dollé, the IAAF’s medical and anti-doping director, stepped down from his position after being interviewed by the independent IAAF Ethics Commission. Balakhnichev maintains that he is innocent, but the IAAF has announced that he has voluntarily stepped down from his role as IAAF treasurer and council member while the commission looks into the allegations.
The Russian federation has denied all of the claims, has raised the possibility of taking legal action on the basis of slander, and has demanded that Seppelt provide an unedited version of his materials.
Meanwhile, Seppelt has said he might make a sequel to his documentary, because more people are sending him evidence of widespread systemic doping in Russia.
Follow-Up Program Suggests Problem Goes Well Beyond Russia
On December 8, a follow-up to Seppelt’s documentary aired, reporting that a whistleblower who was a former member of the IAAF’s Medical and Anti-Doping Commission had provided evidence that as many as 150 athletes had recorded suspicious blood values from 2006 to 2008, but the IAAF did not properly follow up.
The Telegraph has seen the documents and reported that the list includes 225 names, including 58 Russians, 25 Kenyans, three 2012 Olympic champions, gold medalists from other Olympics and major championships, and world record holders. The Australian reported that there were also high numbers of athletes from Spain (12), Greece (12), Ethiopia (10), Morocco (10), Ukraine (11), Romania (11), and China (7) on the list.
Based on The Telegraph’s description of the list, it appears to rank athletes on the basis of how far from the norm their blood values measured. The list reportedly places athletes in categories such as “suspicion red” and “suspicion orange.”
These readings were taken before the Athlete Biological Passport (ABP) was introduced. The IAAF says they were not used to determine drug use, but to determine who might require more follow-up testing.
The IAAF’s Nick Davies said in a message to LetsRun.com, “As any half educated fan of athletics who has an interest in the science of anti-doping should know, a single reading in a longitudinal study of blood values in itself is worthless as evidence of doping, but is used as a MARKER. Athletes with a ‘red flag’ reading may well be guilty of doping, but equally (and we can prove it in the majority of names on this list) they may be innocent – which is why this information should always have remained locked up in the safe of the anti-doping department in Monaco.”
The IAAF also issued a formal statement explaining that the documents obtained by the German reporters and others did not tell the whole story. Their statement read, “One cannot draw any conclusion on whether or not an athlete has doped on the basis of one single blood value. The whole concept of the [athlete biological passport] is to monitor the variations of an athlete’s profile consisting of multiple values.”
Some who have seen the list have agreed with the IAAF that the list likely includes athletes who are not guilty of doping, but they say it raises questions about whether the IAAF, the organization most responsible for drug testing in track and field, was making its best effort to keep the sport clean.
The IAAF says a member of the IAAF Medical and Anti-Doping Commission would not know whether follow-up tests were conducted, and that any tests conducted before 2009 do not have the same level of reliability as those conducted since, because samples were collected under stricter conditions after 2009.
The IAAF noted that they would be passing a video and English transcript of the documentary to the IAAF Ethics Commission for inclusion in its investigation.
Meanwhile, Seppelt told The Guardian that the IAAF is downplaying the significance of the list.
“The IAAF is trying to give the impression that all the details we had were individual blood values. That is simply not the case. There are several readings for each athlete,” he said.
The Road Ahead
It’s too soon to say how all of these accusations will play out for the sport of track and field and its governing body, but how these issues are resolved will affect the future of the sport.
The IAAF is headed for change, regardless of the outcome of either the IAAF’s or WADA’s investigation. Lamine Diack, 81, president of the IAAF since 1999, announced his plans to step down from his position in 2015 long before any of the accusations came to light. (The Guardian has reported that Diack’s son, Papa Massata Diack, a marketing consultant for the IAAF, requested a nearly $5 million payment from Qatar during the bidding race to host the 2017 IAAF World Championships. The IAAF recently selected Doha, Qatar to host the 2019 edition of the meet. Papa Massata Diack denies the accusations, but he has voluntarily stepped down from his position.)
Two-time Olympic 1500-meter champion Sebastian Coe is among the favorites to replace Lamine Diack. He recently said, “I’m not afraid of embarrassment here. I would rather deal with this now than get to the point where nobody cares about the sport,” reported The Guardian.