Russia Could Face More Restrictions Over Athlete Doping

Dec 6, 2019
Originally published on December 6, 2019 10:02 am
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As next summer's Olympics approach, so does another possible doping ban on Russia. On Monday, anti-doping officials could approve penalties preventing Russia from hosting or competing in global sporting events for four years. Critics wonder if this would finally deter a country that keeps breaking the rules. Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Russian doping got me thinking about B.F. Skinner. Among the famed psychologist's groundbreaking theories, this simple notion - punishment affects behavior. If a button produces an electric shock, humans learn to stop pressing the button. If he were alive, Dr. Skinner might consider the past few years of anti-doping policing of Russia and ask, where's the voltage? It was there in the lead up to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. At that time, Rob Koehler worked for WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency.

ROB KOEHLER: WADA recommended that the Russian Olympic Committee be banned.

GOLDMAN: But Russia is a powerful Olympic player, and the International Olympic Committee said no to a total ban. The IOC let a partial Russian team compete in Rio, then again last year at the Winter Olympics, where they were supposed to be neutrals - no Russian flags, no Russian anthem - a rule gleefully broken by the gold medal-winning Russian men's hockey team and its fans.

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GOLDMAN: Russian officials continue to deny widespread doping. But as Russia tries to restore its standing in international sport, problems continue. The country's anti-doping agency was declared noncompliant, and a few months ago, WADA announced Russia manipulated laboratory data it turned over as a condition for reinstatement.

DICK POUND: I think pretty well everybody on the face of the planet, other than Russia itself, is kind of fed up with what's been going on.

GOLDMAN: Dick Pound, the first president of WADA, thinks the new recommended sanctions are strong enough to change Russia's conduct.

POUND: If you get excluded for four years from all these sport-related activities, that's a big deal.

GOLDMAN: But not big enough, says Vitaly Stepanov. He thinks his native country, as a serial offender, should be banned the way individual athletes are punished for multiple doping offenses.

VITALY STEPANOV: To show that the, you know, sports movement cares about ethics, about following rules, I'd say eight-year ban.

GOLDMAN: Thirty-seven-year-old Stepanov was once was deep inside the Russian system.

STEPANOV: In the beginning of 2008, I started working at the Russian Anti-Doping Agency.

GOLDMAN: That's where he became aware of the systemic cheating that's been confirmed in several lengthy independent reports. He was outraged by the massive breach, even though it involved the woman he married. Track star Yuliya Stepanova served a doping suspension.

STEPANOV: Remember - you are talking to a person who felt that his own wife should be sanctioned because she is not following sports rules.

GOLDMAN: They both ultimately became whistleblowers and left the country in 2014. They now live in hiding in the U.S. WADA's proposed four-year ban would let clean Russian athletes compete next summer in Tokyo. Critics say that loophole, again, would soften the blow and prevent real change. That's why Rob Koehler thinks the loophole needs to close. He's the former WADA official who now runs the organization Global Athlete. It's a tough call, Koehler says, but all Russian athletes should be kept out - even the innocent.

KOEHLER: If we don't have meaningful consequences, I don't think we're ever going to see a change. In the long term, athletes will suffer. So we're looking at the next generation we're trying to help here.

GOLDMAN: Whatever sanctions WADA decides on Monday, Russia can appeal and likely will.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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