Russian Doping Scandal: Should all Russian Track Athletes be banned?

By Taylor Tubbs

Cheating has been prevalent throughout the recent history of track and field. Accusations against Russia and the former USSR for involvement in state sponsored doping programs have previously existed.

However, a new 323-page report released on November 9, 2015 found that “the situation (in Russia) is worse than we thought,” according to founding president of the World Anti-Doping Association Dick Pound. As a result of the recent findings in the report, the IAAF, or International Association of Athletics Federation, suspended all Russian track athletes from international competitions until they can prove that they have cleaned up their sport.

Many critics cite that it is unfair to suspend an entire federation from competition when not all track athletes in Russia are taking banned substances. However, due to the prolonged history of Russian athletes doping and the severity of what was found in the new report, suspending the Russians is a necessary step to clean up the image of international track and field.

Russia has a long history of doping allegations that date back to the years of the USSR and the Cold War. In the 1950s, the USSR began pushing athletes to use biomedical aids due to pressures from the government to “meet or exceed all world records” at the time. Russian athletes were the first to systematically use creatine, which is a legal, organic acid that increases muscular capacity. At the time it gave Russians an estimated 1% advantage over their non-creatine using competitors, but today creatine is one of the world’s most used dietary supplements. This shows how early Russian research into sports performance has impacted how athletes around the world continue to train today.

However, Russia did not stop at creatine. Russian scientists conducted state-sponsored research to prefect blood doping, which improves athletic performance by increasing the number of red blood cells. According to head Russian scientist Nikolai Volkov, “swimmers, cyclists, rowers, biathletes, and skaters systematically blood doped for the 1976 and 1980 Olympic Games.”

Doping was illegal at the time, and is still illegal today. Perhaps doping persisted because the Communist Party in Russia put huge pressure on scientists and coaches to produce medal winners at the time.

Doping is more than a government run program in Russia; it is engrained into the sports culture of athletes and coaches alike. For example, in 1991 at an anti-doping conference in Norway, Soviet presenters said that, “44 percent of the Soviet Union’s 240 top athletes considered doping essential and even inevitable to winning.” The mentality that Russia developed during the past few decades about doping needs to be adjusted to the global perceptions of fairness.

By suspending Russia from upcoming international competitions, including the 2016 Rio Olympics unless certain standards are met, the Russian athletes and government must realize how unfair the rest of the world finds their practices.

Although organizations have banned individual Russian athletes for illegal doping in the past, banning all Russian track athletes from international competition is the first ban of its kind. Russia and other national federations have been suspended from international competitions in the past for political issues, but not for doping. Governmental disagreements such as these have kept athletes from competing in the past, and these bans have played a role in relations between the U.S. and Russia outside the realm of sports.

However, a ban on Russian track athletes specifically for doping in sports should be a strong enough sanction to force change in Russia. The blatant state sponsored doping and efforts to conceal doping in Russia have tainted the image of international track and field and robbed athletes of medals that were won through doping.

Just as governmental protests and bans of international sport competitions have driven change in the past, a ban on Russian athletes for doping should be a large enough repercussion to force Russia to reevaluate their drug policy. It would be an international embarrassment for Russia to go from dominating track and field in the 1990s to being banned from all international competition. This ban removes the opportunity for Russia to showcase their athletic superiority to the world.

The findings in the November report show that Russian doping is not something that was limited to the Soviet time period; this is an ongoing problem. The allegations in WADA’s (World Anti-Doping Agency’s) report are numerous and far reaching. Some of the allegations include: athletes adopting false identities and paying bribes to avoid violations, powerful sports officials submitting fake urine samples for athletes, and members of the Russian secret service impersonating engineers in labs during the Sochi Winter Olympics. These are just a few of the hundreds of allegations found in the report.

Russian officials dispute many of them, but they have provided no specific counter evidence to this date. The head of Moscow’s drug testing lab, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov said, “There are fools sitting there who don’t understand the laboratory.” A problem with testing for drugs is that countries are largely responsible for testing their own athletes, which leaves the system open to the kind of ongoing corruption that is present in Russia.

No country has as many corrupt allegations as Russia. According to statistics released by WADA in June 2015, Russia is the violations leader with 225 accusations spanning across 30 sports. 42 of those accusations are against track and field athletes. As a result of WADA’s report, five Russian athletes and five Russian coaches are banned indefinitely from international track competitions. WADA also recommended that Russia as a whole be banned from international track, which the IAAF approved in a 22-1 vote in late November. The overwhelming support to temporarily ban Russia from international track competitions shows that officials worldwide think it is time for Russia to be reprimanded for their actions.

Although this is an extreme measure, and the first of its kind, many track and field athletes think it is a necessary step to clean up the sport. America’s top 1500 runner Jenny Simpson said that the IAAF has “failed me personally and they’ve failed every athlete in the sport by allowing doping to go on for this long.” Athletes and countries around the world are frustrated with Russia’s unchecked drug use up to this point.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union turned to illegal doping to assist their athletes in winning international competitions to showcase Russian superiority. This practice has impacted international sport through the emergence of widespread use of creatine, other countries dabbling in blood doping, and a general distrust of track and field due to the revocation of previously awarded medals. Although banning all Russian track athletes from international competition is an extreme measure, it is necessary to start the cleanup of track and field.

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