Illustrative image for Doping Corruption and International Intrigue Olympic Sport Confronts a Moral Crisis

Bioethics Forum Essay

Doping, Corruption, and International Intrigue: Olympic Sport Confronts a Moral Crisis

I suspected the two alibi witnesses were lying. The accused in the case, Alexei Melnikov, coached long distance walkers and runners for ARAF, the All-Russia Athletic Federation. Lilya Shobukova and her husband testified that they handed over 150,000 Euros in blackmail money to Melnikov in Moscow in January 2012. He alleged this was impossible because he was in Sochi, 1,000 miles away on that day. He’d driven there, he said, so that he could bring along supplies and equipment. The witnesses’ statements aligned with Melnikov’s account. Yes, he was with them in Sochi that day. They were even able to recall, three years later, what he’d delivered.

I was reminded of this by the recent news that the World Anti-Doping Agency, WADA, had accepted Russia’s national anti-doping agency back into the fold after three years. Multiple reports concluded that systematic doping of Russian athletes and accompanying cover ups were rampant, including the notorious hole-in-the-wall at the Sochi drug testing lab through which urine samples of doped athletes were exchanged for clean ones under cover of night and with the help of the FSB, Russia’s version of the FBI.

I asked the witnesses if their statements had been written independently. Yes, of course, they testified, no coordination between them. The two statements were nearly word-for-word identical. I’d noticed that both statements listed exactly four categories of materials Melnikov allegedly transported in his car to Sochi; both listed the same four items; and in precisely the same order. Could the witnesses please enlighten us as to how such an extraordinary coincidence might have come about? It was the translator’s fault, they said.

Shobukova was a world champion marathoner runner earning well over $1 million a year. By the end of 2011, experts at IAAF, the governing body for athletics, concluded that she had been doping. Despite this finding she retained her eligibility to compete in the 2012 London Olympics and the Chicago marathon, which she’d won three times previously. Why was she allowed to run? Persons with influence in IAAF and ARAF had offered to cover up her doping for a price: in the end, 450,000 Euros.

The conspiracy unraveled because lower-ranking anti-doping officials at IAAF refused to give up. They kept pushing for sanctions on Shobukova. By 2014 the calls for action could no longer be ignored; Shobukova’s doping was acknowledged, her tainted results were stricken—and the Shobukovas demanded their money back. When the blackmailers returned only two-thirds of the 450,000 Euros, the Shobukovas disclosed the blackmail, spurring an investigation by the newly formed IAAF Ethics Board.

Among the criteria WADA imposed for reinstating Russia, two proved to be sticking points. Russia was required to admit to the state-sponsored doping documented by the prominent Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren. And Russia was to turn over samples and records held in its Moscow laboratory.

Russia counted that it was willing to admit to the findings laid out in a different investigation known as the Schmid report. That investigation was conducted under the aegis of the IOC and documented “the existence of a systemic manipulation of the anti-doping rules and system in Russia” including people working in the Ministry of Sport. But, rather than concluding the effort was organized and sponsored by the state, this report said it could not “establish with certitude either who initiated or who headed this scheme.” Senior government officials, in other words, did not have to admit any involvement.

The second criterion was imposed because Russia had been denying access on the pretext that doing so would interfere with an unspecified, ongoing criminal investigation. The new agreement says that Russia must allow access by the end of 2018.

Russia is prominent in Olympic sport, hosting events and providing large numbers of athletes. Russia and its close allies hold influential positions in the leadership of many organizations that govern sport. Critics of the deal argue that pressure from such sport governing bodies led WADA to compromise where it should have stood firm. Supporters claim that with RUSADA, Russia’s anti-doping agency once again operational, extensive testing can resume there, and that the long-sought historical data and samples from the Moscow lab will allow cheating athletes to be caught and sanctioned.

Whatever else it does, this new agreement exposes a lethal vulnerability in Olympic sports: the organizations and people that govern sport, on the whole, do a much better job looking out for their own interests than for the well being of athletes or the integrity of their sport. FIFA, for example, is the governing body for soccer. An FBI investigation led to a raid on a FIFA meeting in a luxury hotel in Zurich in 2015 resulting in the indictment of 14 people on charges of “rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted” corruption; 16 more indictments followed in December. The president and the secretary general of the International Biathlon Union were forced out after being accused of accepting bribes of $300,000 and other benefits to cover up doping by Russian athletes. The international federation governing boxing ousted its leader of 11 years amid allegations of financial misconduct. At the moment, it looks like its new head will be Gafur Rakhimov of Uzbezistan. The Irish Times notes, “Rakhimov may not be known in sporting circles, but he is to Interpol, and the U.S. Treasury, who believe him to be one of his country’s ‘leading criminals’ and ‘an important person involved in the heroin trade’ . . .” The list goes on . . . and on.

WADA is governed by its executive committee. Membership in that group is split evenly between representatives from the Olympic movement and from public authorities. It’s in the financial interest of the federations that govern Olympic sports to include Russian athletes in their competitions and to have Russia bidding to host their events.

In the end WADA’s executive committee voted 9 to 2 in favor of recertifying RUSADA, Russia’s anti-doping body, despite Russia’s failure to satisfy the final two criteria for reinstatement. Richard Pound, a prominent figure in the anti-doping world and leader in the first round of investigations into Russia’s misconduct in Sochi, defended the deal: “Nobody wants cheaters at the Olympic Games. Unfortunately, WADA has no legal power to keep them out. That is the responsibility of the IOC, the International Federations and the NADOs [National Anti-Doping Agencies] in each country. It is they who need to stand up and be counted. It is they who must ensure that there is code compliance — by everyone.” He argued that a reinvigorated RUSADA will allow widespread, credible anti-doping testing within Russia, something sorely missing at the moment. On the other side is a chorus—loud and persistent—of critics arguing that WADA has let down athletes and damaged forever faith in its commitment to clean sport. (See a USA Today op-ed and a New York Times editorial.

For my own part, I was disappointed that WADA was unable to hold firmly to its criteria for reinstatement. Yet I understand the prudential reasons offered by defenders of its decision. The fact that WADA felt forced to compromise reveals the ground source of the systemic problem plaguing sport. Money, power, prestige, and celebrity influence athletes, coaches, trainers, and others in the doping athlete ecosystem. They also shape the actions of sport bureaucrats and the organizations, including the international federations that rule sport.

In a well-governed organization, officials are held accountable, power is checked by countervailing power, decisions are explicitly justified and transparency guards against stupidity and self-dealing. We have ample evidence that many—not all, but even one would be too many—of the organizations that govern sport are catastrophically mismanaged.

I serve on the ethics board and the disciplinary commission for IAAF. At the inaugural meeting of the ethics board we met the then president Lamine Diack, who had served in that office for 16 years. As our investigation later uncovered, his son, Papa Massata Diack, was a central figure in the doping cover up and blackmail of Lilya Shobukova. In 2016 Interpol issued a “Red Notice” for his apprehension. He has eluded arrest in his home country, Senegal. Since 2015 Lamine Diack has been under house arrest in France. Sebastian Coe was elected to succeed Diack as President of IAAF and quickly established a new athletics integrity unit, which in July announced disciplinary proceedings against 120 individuals. Aiming to promote good governance, the AIU now vets all persons who hold or are being considered for an official role in IAAF.

How do we spur progress towards responsible governance throughout sport? Criminal investigations are certainly one way to rout out corruption in sport organizations, but we should try also to prevent corruption in the first place. Why not focus on Olympic sport’s principle sources of income—commercial sponsors, broadcast networks, and events. One estimate of the IOC’s revenues from 2013-2016 puts them at $5,700,000,000. Yes, that’s over five billion dollars. Most of the money is for broadcast rights but the 2018 Winter Olympics also boasted 13 multinational corporations as “TOP” sponsors, which requires a commitment in the range of $25,000,000 a year for four years. Current sponsors in that tier include Coca Cola, Intel, Proctor & Gamble, Visa, and Samsung. Some reports suggest that the price may double for the next cycle.

Imagine that Coca Cola, Intel, Visa, and the other large sponsors told the IOC that unless it reformed its own governance and demanded governance reforms from all of the international federations that run the individual Olympic sports, they would refuse to do business with them. We just might see some long overdue action that would protect the integrity of the sports and give clean athletes a decent shot at winning. Pushing corporate sponsors and broadcasters to do the right thing here is worth trying.

Financial pressures, however, aren’t likely to be enough on their own. Politics pervades international sport. Much of it is organizational politics familiar in other realms. We can expect money to influence the behavior of the IOC and its member federations. But money isn’t everything. Athletes parade at the beginning and end of every Olympics behind the flag of their country and medal tables listing how many gold, silver and bronze medals were won by athletes of each nation are prominent. At this moment there are 206 NOCs—national Olympic committees. If a country decides that success is more important than adhering to Olympic values, there are many ways to undermine the integrity of the games.

Russia invented a new method for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi—the “DPM” or Disappearing Positive Methodology. By the end of that year the German television network ARD broadcast a documentary showing how Russian athletes were doping with the knowledge and complicity of their coaches, national sports officials and the laboratory entrusted with their samples. In the IAAF ethics board’s hearings we were able to interview via Skype Melnikov, the Russian coach, and Valentin Balakhnichev, president of the All-Russian Athletic Federation. I was struck by their response to the charges against them. I would describe it as a mix of disbelief and indignation: how dare we interfere with business as usual! Didn’t we understand that this was how things are done here?

As I write this, the U.S. Justice Department has announced indictments against seven Russian military spies for cyber hacking in retaliation for holding Russia accountable for doping. This goes well beyond sport. The Washington Post reports, “Four of the officers with Russia’ GRU military intelligence agency also were charged with targeting organizations probing Russia’s alleged use of chemical weapons, including the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain. Three were indicted in July for allegedly conspiring to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.”

We cannot ignore the geopolitical dimensions of doping in sport. Russia was embarrassed when the Sochi scheme was exposed and its athletes stripped of illegitimately obtained medals. We’ll soon see whether the leverage WADA traded for promises of future cooperation was worth it. The recent indictments suggest that Russia applies to sport some of the same illicit tools it employs with other embarrassing matters. I am not optimistic.

There may be a lesson here as well for bioethics more generally. On many occasions I’ve invoked the three laws of real estate—location, location, location—suggesting a parallel three laws for bioethics—context, context, context. However small, narrow, or merely technical an issue may seem, it is wise never to lose sight of the broadest possible context in which debates over ethics play out.

Thomas Murray is President Emeritus of The Hastings Center. His most recent book is Good Sport: Why Our Games Matter—and How Doping Undermines Them, published this year.


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  1. Tom Murray has long been one of the world’s best and most prominent advocates for “good sport,” that is sports competition that is fair and clean. Doping is for him and for many advocates of fair and honest competition an evil that must be routed out. If only the corruption seen in Russia and other doping/cheating efforts were eliminated, sports would be fine.

    I think Murray’s critique doesn’t go nearly far enough. First, as his own and other writings make clear, the corrupting forces make sports competition pervasively evil. It is not merely doping, but all manner of deviations from good, clean competition that make sports–from grade school to the highest professional levels tainted. Murray Sperber has documented the way sports distorts the educational goals of college complete with corrupt admission standards for athletes, under-the-table payments from alumni, distorted school budgets that make the coaches pay higher than any academic officers including college presidents. Athletes die weekly not because of doping but because they are forced to attempt superhuman biological feats.

    It is certainly not merely a Russian problem as the American cyclists, Deflate-gate, and Pete Rose illustrate. To really get at the reason why there can be no such thing as “good sport” we need to dig much deeper. We need to reflect of the most fundamental irrationality for sports competition. The very idea that one should feel like one has accomplished something when one wins a sports competition needs to be examined. It is quite apparent that the main reason someone wins a competition is biological and genetic. Jamaicans win short distances and Kenyans long distances for complex genetic and evolutionary reasons. In order to make sports competitions interesting, we try impose all manner of classifications on competitors: gender, age, weight, height, and so forth. If we were completely successful, we would neutralize all biological advantage and end up with competitions that are meaningless. As it is, the main explanation of who wins (other than cheating) is luck. Any statistician will tell you that who wins the seventh game of the world series or who scores the tie-breaking basket at the buzzer is meaningless in deciding which team is superior. The small percent of the variance that is explained by training, practice, and effort just raises other questions like “Is it rational or wise to devote thousands of hours– decades of one’s life–mastering the art of some trivial accomplishment–hitting a little white ball into cup several hundred yards away or running a tenth of a second faster than someone else.

    The real problem is even deeper. Why is it that we get joy from demonstrating (or thinking we demonstrate) superiority over another in these meaningless competitions? Even more irrational, why is it that on-lookers–fans, fellow nationals of the athletes competing Olympics or fellow classmates of school boys and girls–feel such joy at witnessing victory and such misery at witnessing defeat? I suggest it is not without reason original Olympics in Greece were banned during the Christianization of the Roman empire. An ethic of community respect and basic human decency would worry not about doping and other cheating in sports; it would worry about why we are programed to prove our superiority rather than rejoice in our common humanity. Fundamentally, sport cannot be made good by cleaning it up. Sport is fundamentally bad.

  2. May be it’s time for Dena to launch a Hastings project on the evils and irrationality of sports. You are right on target.

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