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Three Judges Endorsed Penalties for Russia’s Doping. Then They Cut Its Ban in Half.

A Court of Arbitration for Sport panel substantiated much of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s findings on Russia’s doping cover-up, and then let the Russians off the hook.

In page after page, the report amounts to one of the starkest denunciations yet of Russia’s efforts to evade antidoping rules.

Compiled by a panel of three arbitrators at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and meant to be the final word on Russia’s yearslong doping scheme, the report leaves little doubt about the scale of the state-orchestrated campaign. It outlines how sports and government officials in Russia attempted to deceive the global antidoping regulator in a manner that “could hardly be more serious.” It details how, when caught, the Russians tried to cover up the scheme. When those actions were discovered, too, the report says, Russia tried to cover up the cover-up.

The authors of the report — which has not been released but has been reviewed by The New York Times — resolved to take action. Serious action. Without it, they warned, “the clear message will be that governments and public authorities can corrupt and manipulate antidoping programs.”

But then, despite almost completely accepting the World Anti-Doping Agency’s conclusions about the cover-up, the arbitrators last month balked when it came to the punishment. Instead of upholding WADA’s recommendations for a four-year ban from global sports, they cut the penalty in half and watered it down to such an extent that some in Russia celebrated when the verdict was announced.

The terms set by the arbitrators meant that the ban was not much of one at all. The vast majority of Russian athletes retain a clear path to the next two Olympics. And while the athletes will compete as neutral participants, the arbitrators ruled — over WADA’s objections — that they may wear their national colors and have the word “Russia” emblazoned on their uniforms.

Details of the reduced punishment infuriated athletes and antidoping campaigners, who had called for draconian penalties for Russia. Their frustrations may boil over again later this week when WADA publishes the full 186-page ruling, a process that will take place only after the sports court rejected a Russian appeal to block its disclosure.

To critics of the global antidoping system, it will stand as the latest contradiction between tough talk about weeding out and punishing those who break the rules and the reality of turning those strong words into meaningful action.

When it reduced Russia’s penalty last month, the court was ruling not on the doping scheme itself, a complex and highly sophisticated effort that corrupted the results at dozens of world championships and several Olympic Games, but on the subsequent cover-up. Russia’s attempts to clear its name were swiftly rejected by the panel, which made clear at several points in the report how feeble it found some of the explanations for the deletion and manipulation of key data required by WADA to identify drug cheats.

At one point, the court was told that a technician from the Moscow laboratory at the center of the changes to key data was unavailable after suddenly falling ill with pneumonia. Instead, he had provided written witness testimony that was contradicted by two WADA officials sent to Moscow to retrieve the crucial data.

While Russia’s ban remains in place, many of its athletes are free to continue competing in the country’s colors, and with the country’s name on their uniforms. 
Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press

The report’s most scathing criticism of Russia’s actions was reserved for efforts to fabricate messages in the laboratory’s data system. Those efforts were an attempt to frame the whistle-blower Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of the lab, as being part of a plot to extort athletes who had been caught doping.

“Far from recognizing the opportunity to come clean and draw a line under a scandal that has plagued, and drained resources from, international sport for years, the Russian authorities saw it as an opportunity to fraudulently promote their fabricated defense strategy and mitigate or avoid consequences of the doping scheme,” the report said.

Because of Russia’s manipulation of the data, the panel said, “it will never be possible to know the number of cheating athletes or officials who may have escaped detection.”

The panel also agreed with WADA’s assessment that the scandal was conducted with the full knowledge and involvement of people at the highest levels of the Russian government.

“When the cover-up of the doping scheme began to unravel, the solution adopted by the Russian authorities was not to come clean but rather to double down by seeking to cover up the cover-up,” it said. The report went on to agree with WADA that only the strictest penalties would be sufficient to deter others from attempting a similar schemes.

“It is necessary to impose meaningful consequences to attempt to ensure the confidence of clean athletes, stakeholders and the wider public in the ability of WADA to defend the integrity of sport against doping,” the panel wrote. “Otherwise, the clear message will be that governments and public authorities can corrupt and manipulate antidoping programs and that WADA is unable to do anything about it.”

The stern language made the three-member panel’s decision to reduce the penalties all the more curious. But their ruling suggested that the opinions of the International Olympic Committee and emotional appeals from Russian athletes may have influenced the arbitrators. Both groups have argued that a new generation of athletes should not suffer because of past actions.

One such athlete, the Russian equestrian Evgenija Davydova, appeared at the arbitration hearing and told the court that it would amount to an “emotional low to be forced to compete in a neutral uniform and not be permitted to listen to the national anthem and see the flag.”

The CAS panel met her halfway. While the anthem will remain banned, the uniform she and her compatriots will wear in competitions over the next two years will leave no doubt which country they are representing.

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