MOSCOW - Russia cautiously celebrated a move by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to reinstate its own laboratory for testing athletes for performance enhancing drugs, a decision that has divided the sports world by clearing a path for Russian athletes to return to international competition following a three-year suspension over allegations of state-sponsored doping.
The decision by WADA marks the latest chapter in the long-running saga that has divided Russia and the West in recent years, including the Russian military intervention in Ukraine, meddling in the 2016 elections in the U.S., and intervention in Syria’s civil war.
In Russia, the move was heralded as largely overdue recognition of its progress on an issue Russian sports officials say goes beyond Russia.
“The most important thing is that during this time we managed to make big strides forward in the anti-doping culture in the country,” said Pavel Kolobkov, Russia’s Minister of Sport, in reaction to the decision.
Yet, from President Vladimir Putin on down, Russian officials have vehemently denied WADA’s charges of direct state involvement, saying the suspension is a politically-driven campaign to outlaw Russian athletes collectively for the sins of a few.
Roadmap to return
The vote by WADA’s board — in a split 9-2 to ruling with one abstention — amounts to a partial walk back of key demands of Russia’s so-called “roadmap to return” to competition.
The roadmap’s key provision: Russia formally acknowledge two WADA-triggered investigations that found widespread cheating by hundreds of Russian athletes in what the reports alleges was a massive state-sponsored doping program between 2011 and 2015. A related demand requires that RUSADA, the Russian anti-doping agency, offer complete access to its store of past urine samples of Russia’s athletes.
Critics argue Russia has done neither.
Yet a majority of WADA officials said they were satisfied by Russian progress and promises by Kolobkov for future compliance, with the caveat of possible future suspensions, should policies not be implemented.
“Today, the great majority of the WADA Executive Committee (EXCO) decided to reinstate RUSADA as compliant with the World Anti-Doping Code, subject to strict conditions,” said WADA’s President Craig Reedie said in a statement released to the media.
The decision was widely condemned by sporting federations in the U.S. and Europe, who suggested the decision cast WADA’s role as an arbiter for fair competition in doubt.
Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of RUSADA-turned-whistleblower whose testimony provided key details about the doping effort, argued reinstatement amounted to a “catastrophe for Olympic sport ideals, the fight against doping and the protection of clean athletes.”
Richard McClaren, the Canadian lawyer whose initial report prompted the WADA ban, also condemned the move.
“Politics is dictating this decision,” McClaren said. “The Russians didn’t accept the conditions, so why will they accept the new ones?”
Yet independent Russian sports commentators noted that despite suggestions of a Russian diplomatic victory, not much had in fact changed for Russian athletes themselves.
Russia could now certify its own athletes for competition and host international events once again. They could also certify so-called “therapeutic use exemptions” granted — too often, Russian officials argue — to Western athletes.
Yet some observers noted that Russia’s banned track and field association must still be cleared independently by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), which signaled it would set its own criteria for reinstatement.
The return of Russia’s Paralympic squad, banned from the last two Olympic Games, faces similar hurdles.
“Unfortunately, the return of RUSADA automatically doesn’t give them the flag to compete,” wrote Natalya Maryanchik in the daily Sport-Express newspaper.
“For top sportsman from Russia almost nothing has changed,” agreed Alexei Advokhin in sports.ru, a popular Russian sports fan website. “Yes, their doping samples will again be tested in Russia.”
“If that’s a case for joy,” he added, “it means for three years we’ve understood nothing.”