In the runup to the release of the World Anti-Doping Agency report, Match TV, a Kremlin-sponsored national sports channel launched earlier this year, rightly labeled the stakes involved.
The WADA findings, the channel’s lead noted, would “determine the future of Russian sport.”
It may prove the only point on which Russia and the rest of the world agree.
No good news
After a full year of doping scandals and a partial ban on Russian athletes to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, few expected the second and final anti-doping investigation to offer good news for Russian sport.
Indeed it did not. The WADA report accused more than 1,000 Russian athletes, including Olympic medal winners, of benefiting from an unprecedented state-sponsored doping program between 2011 and 2015.
But while international reporting has focused on sorting through the mountain of evidence leveled by WADA, Russian coverage has focused on a litany of defiance and outrage.
Before the report’s release, Russian state television aired a documentary arguing that Western athletes, including the American champion gymnast Simone Biles and tennis superstar Serena Williams, effectively doped but were granted medical exclusion waivers by pro-Western sporting authorities.
That the information was based on medical files stolen from the WADA database by a hacking collective with ties to the Russian security services made little difference to Russian audiences. The message was clear: All athletes are guilty of doping, but only Russians are persecuted.
Following the report’s release, denials also have rained down from top sporting officials.
Vitaly Mutko, the former minister of sport implicated in the report who has since been promoted to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner Cabinet, insisted the charges were mere geopolitics and a “conspiracy against world sport, with accusations only focused on Russia.”
Alexander Zhukov, the head of Russia’s Olympic Committee, argued that a systemic state sponsored doping system, the key finding of the WADA report, simply doesn’t exist.
That sentiment was echoed by Vitaly Smirnov, the head of an independent anti-doping commission created by the Kremlin to address the doping scandal. In Smirnov’s view, much of WADA’s latest findings were old news fixed by government reforms long ago.
Athletes weigh in
Russian athletes and lower-level federation officials, too, poured scorn from all directions.
Elena Vyalbe, president of Russia’s cross-country skiing federation, accused the WADA report’s primary author, Canadian lawyer Richard McClaren, of cashing in on the West’s desire for Russian-related scandal.
“It’s an excellent way to make money,” she said.
Still others, such as former pole vault champion turned Russian anti-doping official Yelena Isinbayeva, questioned WADA’s methodology and unwillingness — for now — to name names of guilty Russian athletes.
“I doubt very much,” Isinbayeva said, “that if asked to present specific proof of guilt, they will be able to do so.”
Russian skepticism of WADA has particularly centered on the primary source of many of the agency’s findings; former Russian anti-doping program head Grigory Rodchenkov.
Rodchenkov fled Russia for the United States amid the scandal, prompting Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov to accuse him of being “a turncoat’s libel.” Russia’s State Investigative Committee has since launched a criminal investigation against the scientist.
All of this has led athletes like Alexei Voevoda, a two-time gold medal bobsled champion at the Sochi Games, to denounce the latest report as flat out “anti-Russian.”
Voevoda was among several leading sports figures who argued WADA was merely exacting revenge for Russia’s assertive foreign policy, in Crimea, Syria and elsewhere.
Indeed, strong Russian performances at recent Olympics, including a first-place finish in the Sochi Games, have played heavily into the Putin-era narrative of a 21st century Russia “rising from its knees.”
Yet that storyline may now be in doubt.
In lieu of the WADA investigation, the International Olympic Committee announced it will retest doping samples from Russian athletes at the 2012 London and 2014 Sochi Games.
Depending on the findings, Russian outrage, says Echo of Moscow journalist Anton Orekh, is all but assured.
Noting that after a year of constant sports-related scandals, “nothing hurts anymore.” Orekh couldn’t help but marvel at his countrymen’s lack of self-criticism.
“This circus will never end so long as we honestly don’t admit — not to others, but ourselves! — that for years, in pursuit of medals, we were prepared to do anything.
“Admit that,” added Orekh, “and then we’ll find the will to change.”