With the 2016 Olympics just around the corner, the Russian national team is in the midst of a massive doping scandal. On Thursday, the Court of Arbitration Sport upheld doping suspensions for 68 Russian athletes. A Russian official said he expects that the International Olympic Committee will make its final ruling Sunday on whether anyone from his country will be allowed to compete in Rio next month.
The doping suspensions, which were put in place last November and extended in June before being upheld Thursday, stand to significantly impact Russia's ability to compete in the upcoming Olympics. There's a lot to make sense of, so let's answer some of the key questions surrounding the Russian doping scandal in the lead-up to this year's Olympics in Brazil.
Who is being banned?
At the moment, 68 members of the Russian track and field team have been banned from Rio. Among those are Tatyana Beloborodova and Anna Chicherova, 2012 Olympic gold medalists in hammer throwing and the high jump, respectively. Also missing out is 25-year-old runner Sergey Shubenkov, who had high hopes for the gold medal in the 110-meter hurdles after winning the world championship in the event last year in Moscow.
How did the Russians’ doping practices work?
Russia's massive, state-sponsored doping program was all about covering up positive drug tests. A recent WADA-commissioned report by Richard McLaren, a Canadian lawyer, "uncovered a state-run doping scheme that implicated 28 sports, both summer and winter, and ran from 2011 to 2015." This includes tampering with drug test samples in order to cover up positive test results by Russian athletes.
Grigory Rodchenkov, who led the handling of hundreds of drug tests for the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia, described many of the doping coverup practices used by Russian officials to the New York Times in May.
The process would start by having each athlete in the doping system give a clean urine sample -- "delivered in soda bottles, baby formula bottles and other miscellaneous containers" -- prior to using any drugs. Officials would then proceed to ensure that, any time a positive drug test occurred, the tainted urine was replaced with clean urine in order to produce clean results.
In a dark-of-night operation, Russian antidoping experts and members of the intelligence service surreptitiously replaced urine samples tainted by performance-enhancing drugs with clean urine collected months earlier, somehow breaking into the supposedly tamper-proof bottles that are the standard at international competitions, Dr. Rodchenkov said. For hours each night, they worked in a shadow laboratory lit by a single lamp, passing bottles of urine through a hand-size hole in the wall, to be ready for testing the next day, he said.
An independent observer from the World Anti-Doping Agency would watch the facilities during the day, but the Russians were able to do their work overnight when nobody was watching. Rodchenkov was mentioned extensively in a November report by WADA on the Russian doping scandal, which led to the International Association of Athletics Federations' initial bans and Rodchenkov's eventual resignation.
Who is doing the banning?
Final rulings on bans will be made by the IOC.
The IAAF originally banned Russia from major international sports competitions in November after WADA's report detailed widespread doping and major coverups by Russian officials, but it doesn't get final say over Olympic eligibility. That power is reserved for the IOC, and technically, it could overrule even the 68 suspensions handed out by the IAAF. However, the IOC accepted the IAAF's request for an extension on Russia's ban last month, and now the CAS has declined Russia's appeal. All indications are that the IOC will support the IAAF's 68 suspensions. WADA has been among the organizations calling for an outright ban of the Russian national team from Rio, and the IOC will reportedly make its final decision on that matter Sunday.
What’s Russia doing to fight the bans?
Everything it seemingly can. First came the appeal to the CAS, but now that's failed. Some Russian athletes who have been training outside of the country have applied to compete as "neutral athletes," but only two -- runner Yuliya Stepanova (a key whistle-blower in the scandal) and long jumper Darya Klishina -- have received IAAF approval. Those two have been training in the United States. It's unclear, however, whether the IOC will agree with the IAAF approval and let them compete.
Russia hasn't shied away from its anger regarding the situation. "In my view, it's a subjective decision, somewhat political and one with no legal basis," Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko said to a Russian news agency. "Thank you everyone for the funeral of athletics," pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva said after the appeal ruling came down.
And Vladimir Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, also commented:
"We are speaking here about field and track athletes, who had been preparing hard for the Olympics, who have nothing to do with doping, who have nothing to do with none of accusations and suspicions, who had regularly been tested by foreign anti-doping agencies."We can only express our deep regret," he said before adding "our relevant agencies will analyze the situation quickly and efficiently."
Will anyone else get banned?
This is what everyone is waiting for the IOC to determine on Sunday. There's a chance that the entire Russian Olympic association will be outright banned from competing in Rio as officials look to show that they're not being soft in combating doping. Banning the whole team would be a major move, but it would also allow the IOC to point and show that it's taking a harder stance in ensuring clean competition.
Is there any precedent for this?
Athletes get punished for doping on the international sports scene all the time, but the uncovering of Russia's extensive doping system is fairly unique. There have been many individual examples, even in American athletics, such as Justin Gatlin, Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery and Antonio Pettigrew. But none of these single cases were like the institutionalized, state-sponsored cheating and coverups that have been exposed in the Russian scandal. The IOC has never outright banned an entire national team from competing in an Olympics before as a result of doping.
The closest example to what's happened in Russia is the East German national team, which competed independently in the Olympics from 1968 to 1988. Known as State Plan 14.25, it was designed to help the communist country perform better internationally and give it more wins on the world's biggest stage. "We were a large experiment, a big chemical field test," Ines Geipel, an East German athlete, said of the country's extensive doping system. At its height, the program reportedly employed more than 1,500 scientists.
So Russia's massive government-organized doping scheme isn't the first, but the IOC, IAAF, WADA and others are surely hoping it's the last.