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Once Again, Banned Russians Raise Questions About Doping At The Olympics

The team from the Russian Olympic Committee enters the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics. They were prevented from flying the Russian flag because of ongoing doping penalties.
The team from the Russian Olympic Committee enters the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics. They were prevented from flying the Russian flag because of ongoing doping penalties.

TOKYO — Traditionally, doping at the Olympics has been an uncomfortable companion to the Games' soaring athletic achievements.

In Tokyo, it hasn't been the issue it often is because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.

But it's still there, along with a Russian team that has come to embody doping controversy.

A joke and suspicion

There's a joke that's been going around at these Olympics: When has there ever been so much talk about positive tests, and not have it be about performance-enhancing drugs?

Yes, the coronavirus shoved doping to the side.

Or at least it did until U.S. swimmer Ryan Murphy finished second to Russian Evgeny Rylov in the men's 200-meter backstroke.

"I don't know if [the race] was 100 percent clean," Murphy said at a press conference afterwards, "and that's because of things that happened over the past."

His doping suspicion could have been based on a number of things over the past.

In 2016, there was the revelation that Russia had been running a state-sponsored doping system, which Russia has always denied.

U.S. swimmer Ryan Murphy is just behind Evgeny Rylov of the Russian Olympic Committee in the men's 200-meter backstroke final on Saturday. After taking silver, Murphy expressed concerns about the race being "100 percent clean."
Tom Pennington / Getty Images
U.S. swimmer Ryan Murphy is just behind Evgeny Rylov of the Russian Olympic Committee in the men's 200-meter backstroke final on Saturday. After taking silver, Murphy expressed concerns about the race being "100 percent clean."

Also in 2016, there was a widespread drug testing failure, not just in Russia, before the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Travis Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, says the failure happened in 10 sports considered high risk for doping, including swimming and track and field.

"In those high-risk sports alone," Tygart said, "there were 1,913 athletes who had no tests in the months leading into the Rio Olympic Games."

That's significant, he says, because most doping happens before a big event, like the Olympics.

"At least six months before a major competition," Tygart said, "you have to have robust out-of-competition testing because that's the time period when athletes will use human growth hormone or EPO or other steroids."

Those drugs will the be out of their system by the time the Games take place, he says. "But you'll still have the benefit of those drugs that you used prior to the Games. So it's absolutely essential."

Pre-Tokyo, there was another failure because of the pandemic.

In 2020, he said, "you had about a 45% reduction in [global] testing, according to WADA statistics."

"In the first quarter of 2021, this year, you had a reduction of roughly 20%, according to WADA statistics."

In other words, there are plenty of reasons for athletes, like Ryan Murphy, to be suspicious.

In that post-race press conference, Murphy said he was expressing general concerns about doping and wasn't directly accusing Rylov, who was sitting right next to him. Rylov was asked whether he felt like he was being accused of anything and whether he used banned drugs.

"I have always been for clean competition," Rylov said through an interpreter, "I am always tested. So from [the] bottom of my heart, I am for clean sports."

A ban in name only?

Rylov may be.

But the fact is, his country is being punished for a third straight Olympics for being not clean.

And punished, critics say, is a relative term.

Russia technically is banned from the Tokyo Games for its years of breaking anti-doping rules — from the state-sponsored system to allegations the country more recently manipulated drug test results. As a result of the ban, Russian athletes, again, are supposed to compete as neutrals. At the 2018 Winter Games, they were Olympic Athletes from Russia. In Tokyo, they are competing for the Russian Olympic Committee, or ROC.

A group of Tokyo Olympics volunteers walks past a doping control station, near to the Izu Velodrome cycling venue on Monday.
Leon Neal / Getty Images
A group of Tokyo Olympics volunteers walks past a doping control station, near to the Izu Velodrome cycling venue on Monday.

They can't fly the Russian flag or hear their anthem when they win gold.

But they found a stirring alternative.

The International Olympic Committee approved the use of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, and it's getting some play.

As of Wednesday in Tokyo, the ROC had won 14 gold medals and was third in the overall medal standings. ROC winners are getting congratulatory tweets from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

And in response to Ryan Murphy and others renewing suspicions about Russia, the official ROC Twitter account posted an uncompromising response.

"How annoying are our victories to certain colleagues of the trade," the tweet said according to an NPR translation. "Yes, we are here, at the Olympics. Absolutely rightfully so. Whether some people like it or not. But you've got to know how to lose. And not everyone can. The old hurdy-gurdy struck up the same old song about Russian doping. Someone is diligently turning the handle of English-language propaganda, exuding verbal sweat in the Tokyo heat. From the mouths of athletes who are miffed by defeat. We will not console. We'll forgive those we are weaker. God is their judge. To us, he's our helper."

USADA's Tygart says the bravado isn't surprising.

"Look, it obviously shows what a joke the quote, unquote ban really has been," Tygart said. "Everyone knows [the ROC] is the Russian athletes and no change has been evidenced whatsoever coming out of Russia. And it only emboldens them to continue to deny and attack those who would want the rules to be enforced."

Where the blame lies

Tygart and other critics say much of the fault lies with the IOC and World Anti-Doping Agency.

"It's simply not fair to clean athletes who are being held to the highest standards that the IOC and WADA continue to turn a blind eye," Tygart said.

Asked this week about Tygart's criticism, specifically that IOC and WADA leaders are attempting to "pull the wool over the world's eyes" by claiming Russia is banned, IOC spokesman Mark Adams didn't answer directly.

"It's a matter [that's] in the hands of the International Testing Authority," Adams said, "which is independent of [the IOC]. They have told us they've carried out the biggest pre-Games testing program of all time. A great deal of work is being done by the ITA. So far at these Games, we haven't seen a great deal of positive tests as far as we're aware, so at the moment, we think we can give people confidence. It seems the ITA is carrying out a great program."

Tygart says Russia, with its power and money, is too big for the IOC to enforce meaningful punishment.

"Let's not forget," he said, "Russia put 50 plus billion dollars into the Sochi Olympic Games, and they continue to put money into hosting international events across the board. And they have significant political leverage within the IOC in the International Federations movement. And [the IOC] doesn't want to take a hard stand because they're fearful of the backlash [from] the Russians. At the end of the day, in the eyes of the IOC and its limp leadership, [Russia] is simply too big to fail."

If real punishment were possible, Tygart believes it should be against not individual Russian athletes, but instead Russian leadership. He says Russia should be transparent and publish drug test results as a way to start regaining the world's trust.

Short of that, he believes Russian and Olympic leaders are ready to ride out the Russian ban, which was reduced from four to two years.

It's scheduled to end in late 2022, meaning next February's Winter Games will be yet another Olympics of neutrality and, most likely, suspicion.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.