One of sports’ key enforcement agencies handed out a penalty this week that was so late that it is hard to quantify what deterrent effect it could possibly have on anyone else, sending a message no regulator wants to send: Punitive action may only come after the guilty party has already reaped the rewards.
On Dec. 9, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)—the body responsible for ensuring sports are played cleanly without performance-enhancing drugs—banned Russia from fielding athletes and teams in international competitions for four years after the country’s own anti-doping regulator manipulated lab data it was forced to hand over to investigators.
Russia has 21 days to respond to the proposed sanctions, with President Vladimir Putin already signaling he will appeal.
It isn’t the first time the regulator has taken action. WADA originally banned Russian athletes in 2015 over the country’s vast state-sponsored doping scandal that had apparently been going on since 2011, with one of its executive committee members calling it one of “the biggest sports scandals the world has ever seen.”
Indeed, evidence of Russia’s cheating has been overwhelming for years: In 2015 WADA claimed at least 643 positive tests had been hidden by Russian authorities, prompting it to suspend the Russian Athletics Federation (RUSAF) and ban 111 individual athletes from the 2016 Olympic games in Rio. That same year independent expert analysis conducted by Richard McLaren, a Canadian law professor, confirmed the Russian Ministry of Sport had sponsored both the widespread doping of athletes and the systematic covering up of evidence from as early as 2011. Further evidence of widespread doping emerged in 2017 when a whistleblower at the Moscow Anti-Doping Centre handed over the original, untouched data from the lab’s 2015 database.
WADA had caught the Russians red-handed. Yet, despite any serious moves by Russian authorities to clean up their sports or cooperate in any information sharing, WADA took the controversial decision in 2018 to reinstate the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) before the ban was up in the hope Russian officials would play ball and hand over their lab data. And they did—except key parts of it were either missing, fabricated, backdated, or had been tampered with. It has taken nearly another year to ban Russia again.
The lack of compliance or meaningful cooperation should hardly have come as a surprise: Russia had previously failed to hand over key emails in the FIFA bribery and corruption scandal regarding its bid to host soccer’s World Cup tournament in 2018, saying all the computers it used at the time were on loan and the company in charge subsequently deleted all the data.
During the five-year period that WADA amassed incontrovertible evidence of systematic cheating and the subsequent data manipulation by Russia’s weak anti-doping regulator, the country managed to host two of the world’s most prestigious sporting events: the Winter Olympics in 2014 and soccer’s World Cup in 2018, giving the strong suspicion WADA was reluctant to penalize a country that was playing host to tournaments that are massive revenue-earners either before they started or while they were ongoing.
Furthermore, it appears even those sporting bodies that have signed up to WADA’s code are reluctant to implement its “call” (as opposed to “ruling” or “edict”) to ban Russian athletes from competitions that are already in the pipeline. For example, Russia will still be able to compete at soccer’s Euro 2020 (in which, conveniently, St. Petersburg will be a host city) because European football’s governing body UEFA is not defined as a “major event organization” (as per WADA’s definition) with regards to rulings on anti-doping breaches. Meanwhile, FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, is also clarifying whether it needs to comply with WADA’s ban with regards to Russia’s participation in the Qatar World Cup in 2022.
Similarly, the promoters of next year’s Russian Grand Prix have also said they are “confident” the race will go ahead because their contract runs until 2025 and was signed before the WADA investigation. Evidently, big money beats sanctions.
Consequently, how harsh is WADA’s ban in reality if the country is still capable of competing in international competitions, sporting bodies are inclined not to implement its rulings, and events that have already been booked can still go ahead? Some critics might say banning Russia from bidding to host other major sporting events in the next four years is a bit late and pointless.
And more worryingly—how well does WADA come out of all this? The answer is plain: Not as well as it should. Despite the evidence, the testimony of various whistleblowers, and official expert reports, WADA still believes RUSADA’s work is “effective in contributing to the fight against doping in Russian sport” and has decided “not to impose any special monitoring or supervision or takeover of RUSADA’s anti-doping activities” in the four-year period.
And there also appears to be a split within WADA about its regulatory approach and enforcement measures, with its vice president, Linda Helleland, telling the BBC the ban is “not enough”:
“I wanted sanctions that cannot be watered down. We owe it to the clean athletes to implement the sanctions as strongly as possible.”
Other national bodies have slammed WADA’s decision and its lack of meaningful deterrent effect. Travis Tygart, the chief executive of the United States Anti-Doping Agency—who had previously said anything but a ban on participation for any Russian athletes would be inadequate—said WADA’s decision proved the system was “broken.”
The system is broken, indeed, and with little hope these sanctions will be any deterrent at all to other countries moving forward. WADA had an opportunity to come down hard and instead took the path of least resistance—a path others who weigh the risk of breaking the rules will surely remember.