Why are we so worried about the Russian doping scandal?

Fresh allegations over doping in international athletics have cast plenty of shame and doubt. They also reveal the west's political prejudices and ignorance.


Thomas Rowley Rolf Fredheim
14 August 2015

The notion of conspiracy has entered much academic and journalistic writing about Russia, through a popular perception that Putin is pulling all the strings, controlling events domestic and foreign.

So strong is this prejudice that even Russia's doping problem is attributed to the President's machinations.

On 1 August, The Sunday Times and documentary maker Hajo Seppelt broke the latest in a series of stories pointing to widespread doping in top international sport. This particular report, based on a leaked dataset of 12,000 blood tests, suggests a third of athletes who won medals in endurance events at major athletics championships from 2001 to 2012 had registered abnormal blood values. Of the 800 athletes deemed suspicious, more than half (415) were Russian citizens.

This material is pieced together to create a compelling thriller, exposing a conspiracy to dope—for personal profit and a nation’s pride. The central question is: how deep does the conspiracy go?

Systematic doping

Seppelt's 2015 documentary Doping – Top Secret: The Shadowy World of Athletics follows a familiar pattern: audio-transcripts of athletes discuss the various doping products, secret recordings of corrupt doctors administering drug injections to aspiring athletes, bank transcripts suggestive of corrupt actions on behalf of officials, and expert assessment of blood values that point to aggregate anomalous patterns.


13th IAAF Championships in Moscow. Roman Melnichuk / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Doping – Top Secret follows on from another film released by Seppelt last year, Doping – Top Secret : How Russia makes its winners. Taken together, these two films tell three different but related stories about doping, which are worth exploring further.

The first takes us to Kenya, where individuals dope out of desperation and officials seek to profit through bribes and shares of prize money. The second revolves around international athletics bodies, which invest little in catching drugs cheats, and thus appear complicit in doping.

And finally, the third involves Russia, where a national doping project maximises success in sport in an effort to restore national pride.

Kenya and the IAAF

The first story follows doping in long distance running, with particular reference to Geoffrey Tarno, a promising young athlete who collapsed and died during a Kenyan marathon in 2013. The death of Tarno may have been caused by a poorly timed dose of EPO (erythropoietin).

Success in a national (never mind international) marathon can provide financial security for an athlete's entire extended family. In order to succeed in a cut-throat discipline, many aspiring Kenyan athletes seek out doctors willing to dispense EPO. The documentary makers claim that athletes who are caught often pay bribes or hand over slices of their winnings to local officials charged with policing the sport.

In brief, Seppelt contends, there may be no national doping structure, but the Kenyan athletics federation is undermining the anti-doping project for the personal gain of its senior members. Athletics Kenya dismissed the claims, labelling them libellous.

Meanwhile, the second story, the one that has made the biggest headlines recently, revolves around the World Athletics Federation's inability or unwillingness to ban dopers. And here the documentary makers don’t pull their punches, cutting to footage of the IAAF's recent gala in Monte Carlo: 'The World Athletics Federation likes to celebrate.’ The narrator comments on the IAAF’s income ($58m in the last four years) to insinuate that the IAAF is more interested in extracting profit from the sport than in exposing doping.

The implicit argument is that exposing cheats only negatively impacts the engagement of an audience that wants to believe they are seeing 'the real deal'. Less engagement results in less revenue. Unsurprisingly, the IAAF bristled at the claims; Seb Coe branded the accusations a 'declaration of war'.

Incentive structures

David Runciman explains doping in terms of incentives: ‘What matters is how the incentives are aligned: the incentives of the people who might take them and the incentives of the people who might stop them.’

The stories about Kenya and the anti-doping efforts can both be explained by incentive structures which are way out of whack: athletes can win thousands in prize money and millions through sponsorship deals; sports officials in positions of power might profit by turning a blind eye to offenders.

Anti-doping agencies, meanwhile, are underfunded, understaffed, and hamstrung by rules about who can test athletes when, and the evidence needed to prove doping. There are also disincentives to ban athletes unless the evidence is rock solid (imagine the defamation lawsuits).

Should athletics invest more in doping? Everything seems to suggest 'yes'. Are the doping-hunters doing their best, with limited resources and within a tough operating framework? Again, they probably are.

The Russian story

The third story, the one about Russia, is not about incentives, corruption, or bribe-taking. Instead, this story is of a sophisticated national anti-doping programme, with Seppelt claiming, for the first time since the steroid-fuelled excesses of East Germany, that there is evidence of a state-backed doping policy.

The film cloaks these assertions in conspiracy speak: 'We must assume that in Russia a state-backed doping system is supported by a big cover-up apparatus that pulls the strings in the background.'

As Seppelt describes it, Russia’s extensive system of doping tests is a smokescreen (Augenwischerei). The Russian anti-doping-agency, the anti-doping-laboratories, and the sports associations are all part of a system that appear to serve the national interest by covering-up doping.

According to Seppelt, this system was all made possible through legislation introduced by Putin in 2010, which stipulates that Russian athletes could not leave the country without being declared clean. The Russian anti-doping agency would test athletes before major competitions to ensure they could not be caught when representing Russia abroad.

These tests were designed to prevent doping scandals, rather than doping per se, as was testified to by whistle-blowers who sourced their drugs from the very same labs charged with testing the athletes.

Clearly, there are systemic failures within the Russian anti-doping structure. But Seppelt does not see these as failures. Instead the system is working the way it was intended. The way Putin intended: 'I believe that Putin, more than anyone else, has recognised how to conduct politics through sport.'

As the documentary suggests, sport, after all, is a source of national prestige: 'In Russia, sport is fully under government control and the Ministry of Sport. As in every country seeking to raise its image and prestige, sport is an ideal instrument of self-marketing.'

Just to be clear: Russia does have a doping problem. The former Russian Sports Minister has even acknowledged that children at sports academies are pressured into doping by overzealous coaches.

We know conspiracies happen in Russia as elsewhere. And in recent years we have seen many situations where the Russian administration appears complicit in criminal or illegal activity. But this cannot be the whole story, every time: it's not humanly possible for one man to control everything.

But take a minute to imagine a counterfactual. What if the allegations that the majority of the nation's athletes used doping were made by, say, disgraced British athletes, following the London Olympics? Would journalists jump to the conclusion that David Cameron was personally behind the scheme? Probably not. Our views about doping are, in large part, determined by our political prejudices.

The Finnish episode

Take a notorious episode from cross-country skiing, a discipline requiring strength and endurance, much like cycling.

At the world championships in Lahti in 2001, the entire Finnish cross-country skiing team tested positive for HES, a plasma expander, which draws water into the blood stream and masks the effects of EPO by reducing the tell-tale spike in haemoglobin levels.

The incident left question marks over historic Finnish successes in the sport. Was doping systematic in Finnish cross-country skiing? There appears to be some evidence it was: Finnish athletes interviewed for a Finnish documentary describe EPO being in common use in 1989. One trainer describes going to Russia to buy drugs, and smuggling them back across the border, concealed in empty Swix ski-wax boxes. Finnish skiing legend Mika Myllylä admitted to taking EPO throughout his career.

Despite being the subject of media reports, articles in sports science journals, and of documentaries, there is no suggestion that the Finnish doping programme was a state initiative. Instead, the practice is described as evolving within a closed team structure: coaches undertook apprenticeships with known doping-doctors and brought cutting-edge doping technology back to the national setup. Athletes new to the national setup would struggle for a while, before being initiated into the secrets of 'how it is done': steroids, testosterone, and EPO, together with a cocktail to conceal the substances.

There is the suggestion of collusion—some officials may have known about the practice, may have applied pressure on coaches to achieve results to fuel a sense of national pride, and that they may have looked the other way when evidence of doping reached them. The conspiracy, though, is not seen as extending into the fabric of government.

This line of reasoning requires a lot of faith in Finnish institutions. The type of faith few have when discussing Russia.

Why do we see a conspiracy in Russia?

Why do we—academics, journalists, politicians—see a political conspiracy in Russia, but not in Kenya or Finland?

We suspect the reason is that we are yet to understand the structures and incentives that make a certain outcome likely.

As Sean Guillory argued following the murder of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, we tend to see the Russian power structure as a smoothly oiled machine. The 'Putin did it' reaction reflects a view where orders flow from the Kremlin down the power vertical. The power vertical epitomises Putin's personal power, positing that Putin asserts his authority through a direct, personalised chain of command structure. At the same time, it implies the weakness of formal institutions: what matters is personal ties, not rules or structures.

This assumption underlies some recent academic writing about Russia too, with Karen Dawisha's latest book Putin’s Kleptocracy an eye-catching example: as Dawisha puts it, 'Putin and his circle sought to create an authoritarian regime ruled by a close-knit cabal with embedded interests, plans, and capabilities, who used democracy for decoration rather than direction.'

A recent report by Michael Weiss and Peter Pomerantsev uses the same conspiracy prism: 'While elites were secured through a "power vertical" which traded corruption for loyalty, the political technologists helped create a simulacrum of political discourse to keep the nation pliant. Fake "opposition" political parties were set up to make Putin look more reasonable by contrast; pseudo-independent civil society organisations such as the Civic Forum created an imitation of civil society; fake courts gave fake verdicts, fake journalists delivered fake news'.

This totalising vision, though clearly accurate in places, recalls the doping system, in which the failures are so large, that rather than discussing incentives, corruption, or systemic failures, the temptation is to say the system is the way it is because it was designed to be that way.

If all formal institutions are fake, it becomes hard to find any meaningful actors beyond Putin and his inner circle. The result is that far too much power is attributed to them. Faced by an apparently impenetrable and incomprehensible set of practices, it is easy to focus on outcomes and to assume they came about as a result of deliberate planning.

When hidden mechanisms lead to less-than-transparent outcomes, the tendency is to see the tentacles of power behind everything. And from here it is but a short step to positing that hidden forces, perhaps because they are less constrained than overt ones, are able to control the game, to achieve their ambitions.

By now we are close to describing Putin as omnipotent. As a result, we in the west see his hand in unrelated places, even behind the problem of doping in high-end sport.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider following oDR on Facebook or Twitter

Get oDR emails Occasional updates from our team covering the post-Soviet space Sign up here


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData