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Even with a confession of cheating, the world's doping watchdog did nothing

  • Author: Rebecca R. Ruiz, Juliet Macur, Ian Austen, The New York Times
  • Updated: July 1, 2016
  • Published June 15, 2016

Darya Pishchalnikova, a discus thrower for Russia who told the World Anti-Doping Agency that Russian sports officials were running a doping program, competes during the London 2012 Olympic Games. (Pawel Kopczynski / Pool via The New York Times archive 2012)

In December 2012, the World Anti-Doping Agency received an email from an Olympic athlete from Russia. She was asking for help.

The athlete, a discus thrower named Darya Pishchalnikova, had won a silver medal four months earlier at the London Olympics. She said that she had taken banned drugs at the direction of Russian sports and anti-doping authorities and that she had information on systematic doping in her country. Please investigate, she implored the agency in the email, which was written in English.

"I want to cooperate with WADA," the email said.

But WADA, the global regulator of doping in Olympic sports, did not begin an inquiry, even though a staff lawyer circulated the message to three top officials, calling the accusations "relatively precise," including names and facts. Instead, the agency did something that seemed antithetical to its mission to protect clean athletes. It sent Pishchalnikova's email to Russian sports officials — the very people who she said were running the doping program.

The tactics of the World Anti-Doping Agency, which is partly funded by United States taxpayers, have come under international scrutiny in recent months as major doping scandals emanating from Russia have escalated into the biggest crisis in global sports. The lab director of the 2014 Sochi Olympics told The New York Times that at least 15 Russian medal winners at those Winter Games had used banned substances as part of a state-run program. Only after years of mounting clues of widespread doping did WADA recommend barring Russia's track and field program from international competition; the global governing body for track and field is expected to decide Friday whether to bar Russia's team from this summer's Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Interviews with dozens of officials and athletes in the Olympic movement revealed that the global anti-doping watchdog mishandled allegations of widespread corruption, failed to investigate rigorously and was hampered by politics to the point that it was largely ineffective in its mission to protect the integrity of sports.

Multiple warnings about Russia, including Pishchalnikova's email, were sent to WADA over the past several years, and its response has left athletes and officials questioning whether the agency is willing to aggressively combat doping. WADA's decision-making body is composed of government and Olympic representatives, an arrangement that presents possible conflicts because Olympic officials might not be inclined to reveal doping transgressions that could mar the integrity of the games while government officials could be more inclined to protect athletes from their own countries.

"There are conflicts all around the table," said Adam Pengilly, an Olympic athlete from Britain who sits on the International Olympic Committee's athletes' commission.

Some WADA officials defended their handling of Russian doping allegations. They said their powers to combat doping had been limited, with scant resources and, until recently, no defined responsibility to conduct investigations. But other officials and athletes expressed a growing distrust of the agency's leadership and a concern that it has shirked its responsibility to ensure clean competition.

"This systematic doping in Russia is being spread by WADA as sensational news, and it's not the case," said Arne Ljungqvist, a former medical commissioner for the International Olympic Committee and the International Association of Athletics Federations, the governing body for track and field.

"They could have made an investigation," he said about the years during which WADA received repeated tips like Pishchalnikova's email. "But they didn't."

Years of clues

Regarded as one of the pioneers of anti-doping in the Olympic movement, Ljungqvist, 85, will soon have statues erected in his honor in Monaco, the home of the IAAF, and Sweden, where he worked as a medical researcher. Yet Ljungqvist is confronted with the apparent futility of his efforts to put an end to state-sponsored doping.

"We all knew about the Russians," Ljungqvist said over lunch in Bedminster, New Jersey, at the estate of artist Sassona Norton, who has been commissioned to make the statues.

Just days before the 2008 Beijing Games, seven female Russian track and field athletes were suspended for manipulating their urine samples for drug tests. An investigation conducted by the IAAF showed that the urine the athletes provided was not their own — the DNA of those samples did not match the athletes' DNA.

One of those athletes was Pishchalnikova.

"It seems to be an example of systematic doping," Ljungqvist said at a news conference in Beijing at the time. "I find it frustrating that such planned cheating is still going on. I am very disappointed."

A year later, Russian athletes were implicated again. This time, biathlon world champion Ekaterina Iourieva and two of her teammates were barred from the world championships after testing positive for the blood-boosting hormone EPO.

"We are facing systematic doping on a large scale in one of the strongest teams of the world," Anders Besseberg, the president of the International Biathlon Union, said at the time.

The Russians were left to investigate themselves. The Russian Biathlon Union was fined and promised to scrutinize its own athletes.

Ljungqvist, vice president of WADA from 2008 to 2013, said he repeatedly raised concerns about Russia. The agency considered penalties against the nation, but in the end, he said, the inherent conflicts of interests within WADA and the Olympic movement won: The matter was set aside because "it was too politically infected," he said.

"You could say I was to blame, too," he said. "But I've been there, and I know how hard it is to prove doping on that scale."

In 2011, a scientific paper written by six drug-testing experts carried further clues. Titled "Prevalence of Blood Doping in Samples Collected From Elite Track and Field Athletes," it examined thousands of samples collected from 2001 to 2009.

One nation — identified in the papers as Country A and known to WADA — stood out. Country A had a notably higher number of suspicious samples. According to an author of the report, Country A was Russia.

"WADA always had an excuse as to why they wouldn't move forward," Ljungqvist said, citing limited money and investigative resources. "They expected Russia to clean up themselves. They hadn't fully grasped that WADA had the responsibility to do this."

Russian sports officials have acknowledged in recent months that the country has problems with doping, but they have emphatically denied charges of a state-run drug program and dismissed whistle-blowers' specific allegations. They have said that they are addressing their doping problems and that their track program should be allowed to compete in the Rio Games.

Built-in conflicts

When the World Anti-Doping Agency was created in 1999, its unstated purpose was to help win back the credibility of global sports in the wake of a massive drug bust at the 1998 Tour de France and a bribery scandal involving Salt Lake City's bid to host the 2002 Olympics. Its official purpose was not to drug test or punish cheaters but rather to serve as an independent watchdog for Olympic sports worldwide.

"They were afraid sponsor money would dry up if the Olympics were perceived as dirty," said Robert Weiner, a former spokesman for WADA and, previously, the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Sports officials and national governments gathered in Switzerland, home to the IOC, to discuss funding the new agency.

The U.S. government was especially wary about signing on to support an agency that did not appear independent. The International Olympic Committee is in charge of the Olympic Games and derives tremendous revenue from them. IOC officials — specifically the head of the marketing commission — were going to lead WADA, a doping watchdog.

Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the White House drug policy director at the time, objected loudly to what he saw as the IOC's outsize influence and its lack of political will to unearth drug violations that could tarnish the Olympic brand.

"The IOC is hiding behind WADA," McCaffrey said in a recent phone interview, suggesting negative attention was deflected from one organization to another. "And WADA is hiding behind a flawed structure."

In 1999, Richard W. Pound, WADA's first president and an IOC member, bristled when McCaffrey accused WADA of not being independent. Of course it would be independent, Pound wrote in a letter the month before the agency was established in Switzerland.

The IOC hosted the agency's first board meeting and paid for WADA's first two years of existence.

WADA started with simple pursuits. Its charge was to standardize doping rules worldwide and create and oversee individual countries' anti-doping programs. Investigative powers were not explicitly written into the agency's code. As time went on, many expected the organization to evolve into a more active regulator and testing body, separate from the IOC and the various world governing bodies overseeing Olympic sports. That never happened.

Instead, drug testing was largely left to national laboratories. In Russia, that lab was run by Grigory Rodchenkov, who said he routinely covered up positive tests in his 10 years there.

 
Grigory Rodchenkov, who ran the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games antidoping test laboratory, said he developed a three-drug cocktail of banned substances that he provided to dozens of Russian athletes, in Los Angeles, May 5, 2016. The World Anti-Doping Agency’s response to warning signs of Russian doping raises questions of whether the agency is capable, or even willing, to aggressively combat doping. (Emily Berl / The New York Times)

A whistle is blown

For years, Vitaly Stepanov, who worked for Russia's anti-doping agency, wondered about the motives of WADA officials. He was giving them insight into an elaborate, state-run doping program, urging them to stop it, but seemingly nothing was done.

"Everyone was telling me WADA is not an organization that fights doping," Stepanov said. "It's politics."

Stepanov, who was from Russia but studied at Pace University in New York, began working in anti-doping education at the Russian agency in 2008, the same year the agency was officially founded. The more he learned about how the agency operated, the more he realized that the Russian system was far from the accepted standard.

Sports officials told him he did not need to test some athletes because they were clean, Stepanov said. Athletes and coaches offered him bribes to dispose of positive tests. Workers at the national anti-doping lab were covering up failed drug tests, and higher-ups in the Russian sports ministry were part of that scheme.

At the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, Stepanov met several WADA officials in a hotel and secretly began blowing the whistle on Russia, as reported in 2015 by The Sunday Times of London.

WADA's first reaction, he said, was, "What do we do?"

In subsequent years, he sent some 200 emails to WADA, he said, telling anti-doping officials everything he knew. "I work at a Russian anti-doping agency that actually helps athletes dope," he said in the phone interview. "I'm writing to WADA what's going on, and nothing is happening."

WADA's response to many of his emails was, "Message received."

Inside WADA's offices, on the 17th floor of the former stock exchange building in Montreal, the agency's officials were not sure how to handle Stepanov's claims.

David Howman, the longtime director-general, whose corner office overlooks the St. Lawrence River, wavered. A lawyer from New Zealand, Howman said he thought to himself: "We don't want to be the police. We can't be the police."

But he was aware that doping was becoming a criminal enterprise, and investigations — perhaps more than drug testing — were a key to exposing cheaters. (For instance, in the sprawling steroids case involving the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative, or BALCO, none of the athletes found to have been doping had failed drug tests.)

When WADA was confronted with suggestions that the Russians had resurrected an East German-style system of doping, Howman said, his 70-person staff seemed inadequate. The agency did not even have an investigator, and it claimed that it did not have the authority to conduct investigations.

"It's really up to us to monitor everyone; that's our job," Howman said in an interview in Montreal last month. "The idea was not to do the investigations ourselves but to gather the information and share it with those who could actually do something about it. That's how this whole thing started."

But Howman eventually hired a top drug investigator from the United States: Jack Robertson, who would be the liaison between WADA and global law enforcement and who could also help WADA untangle complicated cases.

In September 2011, Robertson was assigned to tackle doping investigations for WADA. His assignment was the entire world.

Inquiry starts and stops

 

Officially, WADA's explicit power to investigate would begin with a new code, approved in 2013 to take effect two years later — four years after Robertson was hired as staff investigator.

Still, there did not appear to be an appetite to look deeper into Russia, especially after a new president came on board in 2014. His name was Craig Reedie, a longtime IOC official who had been involved with WADA from the start. When Reedie took over as head of the agency, things changed, several staffers said.

At the same time, Russia began giving an extra donation to WADA, with no reason earmarked on WADA's financial statements — an unusual move. In all, in the past three years, Russia has given an extra $1.14 million on top of its annual contribution, which was $746,000 in 2015. A spokesman for the agency confirmed Russia's contributions and said countries that choose to make additional donations had never received special treatment.

Reedie, a Scot who once led the international badminton federation, was a smooth and popular leader in the political world of the Olympics. In anti-doping circles, he is not regarded as an aggressive crusader.

"We're not going to turn to people and say, 'These are the rules; obey them,'" Reedie said in the lounge of the five-star Lausanne Palace hotel in Switzerland this month. He explained that WADA was better suited to offer sports federations and countries advice when they asked for it rather than pursue accusations of cheating.

Reedie's predecessor, John Fahey, a politician from Australia, had given his blessing for Robertson to explore allegations involving Russia's laboratories.

"There was always in our mind a deep suspicion that the government was controlling Rusada," Fahey said in a phone interview last month, using the acronym for the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, which employed Stepanov.

When Reedie took over, the inquiry into Russia stalled, according to several people at WADA.

Case boils over

Robertson needed help on the case. He needed more personnel and more money to conduct a thorough investigation. But again and again, he was met with a wait-and-see attitude.

Frustrated, he forced WADA's hand, according to several people in the organization. He leaked information on the case to Hajo Seppelt, a journalist for German broadcasting company ARD.

Seppelt's bombshell report, "The Secrets of Doping: How Russia Makes Its Winners," aired on Dec. 3, 2014.

At first, Reedie told his fellow WADA officials to stand back and see if the global media picked up the story, according to several people at WADA who were not authorized to speak to reporters. But during that delay, anti-doping officials spoke out, urging WADA to investigate ARD's claims.

On Dec. 8, 2014, Travis Tygart, chief executive of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, sent a letter to Reedie and Howman at WADA, insisting that the agency had investigative power and that it needed to apply it to Russia.

The agency could not possibly hand over the case to the IAAF, the track and field governing body, he said, because multiple sports were implicated in the ARD report. In addition, Tygart wrote, a vice president of the track organization was reported to be a part of the cover-up.

"For WADA to sit on the sidelines in the face of such allegations flies in the face of WADA's mandate from sport, governments and clean athletes," Tygart wrote.

Days later, WADA commissioned an independent inquiry. Pound, who had a reputation as an aggressive anti-doping crusader, was installed as the chairman.

Needing investigative muscle, the agency hired 5 Stones intelligence, a private investigations firm based in Miami and staffed with former members of the DEA, the Secret Service, the CIA and the FBI.

Four months into that investigation, Natalya Zhelanova, an adviser to the Russian sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, received an email from Reedie. It seemingly told her and Russia not to worry about the inquiry.

Reedie assured Zhelanova that, in his opinion, the accusations of Russian doping stemmed from a time before Russia had implemented new laws and anti-doping efforts. He gave his assurance that Russia was going to be fine because "there is no action being taken by WADA that is critical of the efforts that I know have been made, or are being made, to improve anti-doping efforts in Russia."

 

Reedie said he saw no conflicts in his dual allegiances to the Olympics and the anti-doping agency.

"I think we manage to do reasonably well," he said of the current structure of the agency. "It works, and there is constant challenge from both sport and governments to everything WADA does."

The inquiry's findings were published in November 2015. Russia was accused of widespread government-supported doping in an explosive 323-page report that centered on track and field.

But not everything investigators had unearthed — including Pishchalnikova's 2012 email, and WADA's handling of it — made it into the report.

Even so, the external pressure intensified for WADA to look beyond Russia's track and field program and to scrutinize other countries that had come under suspicion. But Reedie was reluctant, according to several WADA officials. He said that WADA did not have the money and that there was not enough evidence to pursue another investigation.

"You couldn't go forward because he was in charge," Howman said of Reedie. "You have to rely on the people in charge, and Craig was in charge of the political stuff."

Two years earlier, however, Howman was among the top WADA officials who had received the email plea from Pishchalnikova. Reedie was on the agency's Foundation Board at the time, but he was not yet president.

In her 2012 email, Pishchalnikova named Rodchenkov, the anti-doping lab director whose facility had recently been flagged by WADA for suspicious test results. She said he was substituting out athletes' steroid-laced urine with clean urine. "I have proof," the 2012 email said.

The agency's decision to forward the email to track and field officials — including Russian ones who were implicated in the allegations — was a function of protocol. Despite having hired a staff investigator, WADA did not at that time see itself as capable of conducting investigations, the agency has said.

Four months after Pishchalnikova wrote to WADA, the Russian track and field federation barred her for 10 years. She is retired from competition and living in Russia. Attempts to reach her were unsuccessful.

Reedie — who said he had never heard of Pishchalnikova's email — said he required proof before initiating investigations.

"We need people to come to us with evidence, and then we will investigate," he said in an interview.

He said the decision to allow Russian track and field athletes to compete in the Summer Games was entirely up to the sport's governing body.

"That's their problem," he said. "I'm one of the few people who doesn't wake up in the morning and think only about Rio."

In recent months, athletes have agitated for further inquiries.

"Clean athletes are at the point where we can't have faith in the system," said Lauryn Williams, a U.S. sprinter and bobsledder. She added that she was disappointed that the November report had not immediately spurred a broader inquiry.

"Who's defending us?" she said. "Who's on our side?"

After Williams and other athletes from around the world sent a letter to WADA and the IOC last month detailing their concerns, the agency announced a new independent investigation into the allegations about cheating at the Sochi Olympics made by Rodchenkov, the lab director.

Other specialized inquiries, such as one into accusations of doping by Chinese swimmers, have been opened.

"Investigations have become the flavor of the month," Reedie said.

Howman, who is leaving WADA this month, said that only after the Sochi investigation was complete — roughly two weeks before the Rio Games are scheduled to begin, it is expected — should WADA be judged on how it had handled the cases.

"It's a really tense time because no one wants to mess it up," Howman said.

As for Reedie, his term as WADA president runs through the end of the year. Many anti-doping experts and athletes see his dual role as a vice president of the IOC as emblematic of the conflict they say is derailing WADA.

After the recent interview in Lausanne, Reedie handed a reporter his business card. He apologized that, with its five-colored Olympics rings logo, it was an official IOC card, not a WADA one.

"It's the only one I can give you," he said.

 

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