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  • Paralympians of Belarus carry the Russian flag in protest.

    Paralympians of Belarus carry the Russian flag in protest. | Photo: Reuters.

Published 16 August 2016
It seems the Russian Paralympic athletes are being collectively punished as a means of punishing the Russian government.

The International Paralympic Committee announced on August 7 that it had decided to ban the entire Russian team from the upcoming Paralympics to be held in Rio in September. Thus, 267 mentally or physically disabled Russians who have been preparing for the Rio Paralympics for years are now banned from competing.

The Biased Report That Led to Banning Russian Athletes

The IPC explanation of why they banned the entire 267 team members boiled down to the accusation that “the State-sponsored doping programme that exists within Russian sport regrettably extends to Russian Para sport as well.”

These are strong accusations, not against the athletes, but against the Russian government. It seems the Russian Paralympic athletes are being collectively punished as a means of punishing the Russian government.

But what are the facts? First, it’s true some Russian athletes have used prohibited steroids or other performance enhancing drugs. The documentaries by Hajo Seppelt expose examples of Russian athletes admitting to taking PEDs, a banned coach clandestinely continuing to coach and another banned coach dealing in prohibited drugs.

Another fact is that this problem exists in many, if not all countries, especially since professional athletics is big business. WADA data shows that many countries have significant numbers of doping violations.

It is claimed that doping by elite athletes is pervasive in Russia but is this true? To answer that accurately would require an objective examination. In the current controversy the accusations and assumptions rely substantially on individual anecdotes and testimony which has been publicized through media reports with very little scrutiny. In contrast with the accusations, the scientific data prepared by WADA indicates that Russian athletes have a fairly low incidence of positive drug tests in international certified laboratories.

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The biggest question is whether the Russian government has been “sponsoring” or somehow supervising prohibited doping. This has been repeated many times and is now widely assumed to be true. However the evidence is far from compelling. The accusations are based primarily on the testimony of three people—Grigory Rodchenkov, who extorted athletes, and “whistle-blowers” Vitaliy and Yuliya Stepanov.

The Stepanovs were the star witnesses in the 60 Minutes feature on this topic. The report was factually flawed: it mistakenly reports that Vitaliy had a “low level job at the Russian Anti-Doping Agency RUSADA." Actually he was adviser to the director general, close to the minister of sports and a trainer of doping-control officers.

The 60 Minutes story also failed to include the important fact that Vitaliy was directly involved in his wife’s doping. In “The Secrets of Doping,” a documentary by Seppelt, it states, “First, Vitaliy even helps his wife with doping, procures the drugs, leads a kind of double life.”

Adding to the argument that there may be a political bias in these accusations, all three witnesses now live in the U.S.

The “proof” of Russian state-sponsored doping rests on remarkably little solid evidence. The principal assertion is that the deputy minister of sports issued email directives to eliminate positive tests of “protected” athletes. Richard H. McLaren, of the McLaren Report, claims to have “electronic data” and emails proving this.

However he has not revealed the emails. If the emails are authentic, that would be damning. How would the ministry of sports officials explain it? Do they have any alternative explanation of the curious directives to “quarantine” or “save” doping test samples? Astoundingly, McLaren decided not to ask them and he still has not shown the evidence he has.

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Another controversial issue is the opening and replacement of “tamper proof” bottles. The Rodchenkov account is that in the middle of the night, in cahoots with Federal Security Service, they would replace “dirty” urine with “clean” urine. Rodchenkov says they found a way to open the tamper proof urine sample bottles. However the Swiss manufacturer Berlinger continues to stand by its product and has effectively challenged the veracity of the Rodchenkov/McLaren story.

McLaren says he does not know how the Russians were opening the bottles but he knows it can be done because someone demonstrated it to him personally. In contrast with McLaren’s assertions, Berlinger states unequivocally, “In neither its own tests nor any tests conducted by the independent institute in Switzerland has any sealed Berlinger Special AG urine sample bottle proved possible to open. This also applies to the ‘Sochi 2014’ sample bottle model.”

If McLaren’s claims are true, why has he not discussed this with the manufacturer? Isn’t it important to identify the weakness in the system so that doping test samples cannot continue to be swapped as alleged? If his objective is to honestly find the facts, prevent cheating and improve the testing for doping violations, surely he should be closely consulting the certified and longstanding bottle manufacturer. The fact that McLaren has apparently not pursued this with the manufacturer raises legitimate questions about his claims, sincerity and “independence."

McLaren further claims to be able to forensically determine when a "tamper proof" bottle has been opened by the “marks and scratches” on the inside of the bottle caps. His report does not include photos to show what these “marks and scratches” look like, nor does it consider the possibility of a mark or scratch resulting from some other event such as different force being applied, cross-threading or backing off on the cap.

In this area also, McLaren has apparently not had his findings confirmed by the Swiss manufacturer despite the fact it stated, “The specialists at Berlinger Special AG are able at any time to determine whether one of the company’s sample bottles has been tampered with or unlawfully replicated.”

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If the findings of McLaren’s “marks and scratches expert” are accurate, why did they not get confirmation from the specialists at Berlinger? Perhaps it is because Berlinger disputes McLaren’s claims and says, “Our kits are secure."

The IPC decision substantially rests on the fact-challenged McLaren Report. The IPC statement falsely claims that the McLaren bottle top “scratches and marks” expert has “corroborated the claim that the State directed scheme involved Russian Paralympic athletes.”

The IPC report includes data that purports to show widespread doping manipulation in Russia. They report, “Professor McLaren provided the names of the athletes associated with the 35 samples ... and whether the sample had been marked QUARANTINE or SAVE.”

These 35 samples are presumably the same Paralympic 35 which are identified on page 41 of the McLaren Report as being “Disappearing Positive Test Results by Sport Russian Athletes." There is no source for this data but supposedly it covers testing between 2012 and 2015. McLaren provided another 10 samples thus making 45 samples relating to 44 athletes.

It is then explained that 17 of these samples are actually not from IPC administered sports. So the actual number is 27 athletes implicated. However, in another inconsistency, the IPC statement says not all these samples were marked “SAVE” by Moscow Laboratory. That was only done for “at least” 11 of the samples and athletes.

If the IPC final number is accurate it means they confirmed 11 Paralympic athletes who tested positive between 2012 and 2015 but had their positive tests “disappeared” to allow these athletes to compete. These athletes should be suspended or banned. Instead of doing that, the IPC banned the entire 267 Russian Paralympic team!

The McLaren Report looks like a rush to judgment. The report was launched after the sensational New York Times story based on Grigory Rodchenkov and the 60 Minutes story based on the Stepanovs. Before he was halfway done with his investigation, McLaren was already advising the International Association of Athletics Federations to ban the entire Russian team.

The McLaren Report, with all its flaws and shortcomings, was published on July 16. The IPC then issued its decision to ban the Russian Paralympic Team from the September Rio Paralympics on August 7.

The IPC statement claims that they “provided sufficient time to allow the Russian Paralympic Committee to present their case to the IPC” before it finalized the decision. While the Russian Paralympic Committee appeared before the IPC, it’s doubtful they had sufficient time to argue its case or even to know the details of the accusations.

In summary, the accusation of Russian "state-sponsored doping" by McLaren and Craven is based on little solid evidence. Despite this, the accusations have resulted in the banning of many hundreds of clean athletes from the Olympics and Paralympics. They have also contributed to the ugly “anti-Russian” prejudice and discrimination happening at the Rio Olympics right now. This seems to violate the purpose of the Olympics movement which is to promote international peace not conflict and discrimination.

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