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International sports

Glow time

by Theresa Krinninger

In depth

Ekaterina Koneva of Russia, the reigning world indoor triple jump champion, has been suspended for doping before. Now, the whole track and field team is excluded from international competitions.

Ekaterina Koneva of Russia, the reigning world indoor triple jump champion, has been suspended for doping before. Now, the whole track and field team is excluded from international competitions.

Cycling is slowly recovering from doping scandals, while Russian athletics is now stuck in a mire. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has been forced to tighten its rules.

There are three rules to avoid getting caught: wear a watch, always have your mobile phone at hand and know your “glowing” time. That is what Tyler Hamilton, formerly a professional cyclist, states in the 2012 book he co-authored on the cycling mafia and its dirty business. “Glowing” in his language means that performance-enhancing substances can be detected in the body. He elaborates in great detail how his team avoided controls for years.

Hamilton assesses the full extent of systematic doping in professional cycling from the 1990s until 2000. The US citizen writes about a network of corrupt doctors, unscrupulous team bosses and corrupt laboratory staff. He recalls red testosterone pills, hormone erythropoietin (EPO) being kept in refrigerators and blood transfusions in hotel rooms.

EPO, which stimulates red blood cell production, is still relevant in endurance sports. An athlete’s stamina depends on how much oxygen the body absorbs, and the more red blood cells there are, the better the oxygen flows in the body. Until he blew the whistle, Hamilton was a member in the “brotherhood”, using illegal substances to enhance his sporting performance. A year after his Olympic victory in 2004, the International Cycling Union (UCI) grounded him for two years. He had been tested positive for blood doping. Being accepted into a professional team proved difficult afterwards.

Hamilton’s report includes the key role played by professional cyclist Lance Armstrong. A longtime training partner and second cycler in Armstrong’s team, Hamilton witnessed systematic doping first hand. He was later called to give testimony in investigations against Armstrong. In 2012, the UCI striped Armstrong of his seven Tour de France victories as well as other titles attained since 1998.

Culture of deceit

Doping has similarly tainted other sports. In a TV documentary broadcast by the German ARD network in late 2014, Hajo Seppelt, a journalist, depicted Russia’s sophisticated doping system. Based on this programme, WADA ordered an Independent Commission to investigate. The result was a 300-page report which was published in November 2015.

The offenses listed in the report were so serious that the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) decided to suspend the All-Russian Athletics Federation (ARAF) for the time being. The Commission also suggested to ban five athletes, four coaches and one medical doctor for life. When this essay was finalised in May, it was unlikely that any Russian track-and-field athlete would be allowed to compete in the Rio Olympics in August.

The Commission noted a deeply rooted culture of deceit, which to some extent was criminal. The leaders were Valentin Balaknichev, the former ARAF leader, Sergey Portugalov, ARAF’s chief physician, and Grigory Rodchenkov, the head oft he WADA-approved laboratory in Moscow.

Rodchenkov, Portugalov and coaches were said to have taken bribes from athletes in exchange for ensuring they would not test positive. Portugalov, according to the Commission, was the link to the national doping programme, but other physicians as well as lab staff supported doping too.

The IC proved that the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) was guilty of more malpractice. For instance, RUSADA staff announced tests early on to coaches and athletes. WADA rules demand that an agency always knows the whereabouts of athletes, but RUSADA was not strict about it. The Commission found that staff accepted wrong IDs and permitted suspended athletes to compete in relevant sports events.

The second part of the Independent Commission’s report was published in January 2016. Its findings weighed heavily against former IAAF President Lamine Diack, who had resigned in August 2015 after the French judiciary had started investigations. The authors argued that Diack and his “closed inner circle” had actively supported corruption, nepotism and the concealment of doping. He was succeeded by Sebastian Coe from Britain.

According to the IC, Diack was so influential that there was no opposition to his sons becoming IAAF advisers. More­over, Diack is said to have asked his lawyer, Habib Cissé, to personally check all athlete passports of Russian athletes. WADA introduced these passports in 2009, and they serve to document blood and urine tests long term. According to the report, Cissé did not only cover up several positive tests, but also took bribes from athletes.

According to the Commission, corruption was facilitated by Valentin Ba­lakhnichev among others. Balakhnichev was accused of taking advantage of being president of the ARAF and treasurer of the IAAF at the same time. He and Cissé kept each other briefed on what was going on and cooperated to keep things secret. He had resigned from both posts soon after the broadcast of the TV documentary.

All in all, the broadcast did not make much of a difference in Russia however, says Seppelt, the journalist. Shortly after the revelations, Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko stated that all parties involved had been fired. In a second ARD report of mid-2015, however, Seppelt showed that suspended coaches were still active and still promoting the use of performance enhancing substances. The TV documentary also pointed out that Anna Antseliovich, the newly appointed RUSADA executive, had cooperated with athletes to define dates for doping tests. WADA responded by withdrawing the Moscow lab’s license and revising its Anti-Doping Code with which all sports federations and anti-doping agencies must comply.

Sometimes, parties concerned are not timely informed of important rule changes. For example, WADA put the heart medicine Meldonium on the prohibited list in January 2016, but several athletes, including Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova, claim they did not know. WADA is considering a pardon for anyone who was tested with less than one microgramme of Meldonium in their body prior to March 2016. Critics, however, say that WADA is not doing anyone a favour by granting pardons. Even the top anti-­doping agency is thus facing controversy.

Theresa Krinninger is a freelance journalist.


Hamilton, T., and Coyle, D., 2012: The secret race. New York, Bantam.

WADA: Independent Commission Reports

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