Nick Butler

Coverage of doping stories in sport this year has felt at times like being stuck in some sort of endless time-warp. 

Reports or decisions criticising Russia followed by a furious denial by the country’s Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko and his lieutenant-in-chief in pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayava, for instance. Or backslapping from administrators as they congratulate themselves on a “zero tolerance” approach, followed by stringent calls for stronger action by most of the world’s journalists and condemnation that decisions are tainted and “politically influenced” by Russia.

Isinbayeva today delved deeper into her rich litany of vocabulary to slam the IAAF decision to only deem two Russians eligible to compete internationally as “nothing, a big nothing, which stinks”. Mutko, who seems to operate on some sort of automatic switch alternating between “sincere apology” mode and “angry counter-attack”, called once again for the IAAF to be dissolved. Most observers outside Russia were far less sympathetic, it barely needs to be said…

But the IAAF decision was not straightforward, and it came at the end of another week which showed that, beyond anything else, anti-doping is a murky muddle which is anything but obvious to solve.

One of the two athletes deemed eligible to compete is Yuliya Stepanova, the former doping cheat turned whistleblower who made the allegations which led directly to the Russian suspension last year. She made a triumphant return to action at the European Championships in Amsterdam last week, until she took to the track at least, being praised for her “bravery” by European Athletics President Svein-Arne Hansen before she limped home in last place in her 800 metres heat with suspected ligament damage.

Hansen’s views have been widely supported, with even athletes affected by her doping like Britain’s Jenny Meadows supporting her presence. Criticism has largely been limited to voices in Russia accusing her of slandering and betraying the motherland.

Yuliya Stepanova made her return to international athletics this week, before limping off the track through injury ©Getty Images
Yuliya Stepanova made her return to international athletics this week, before limping off the track through injury ©Getty Images

But there are other figures in the sports world who hold deep reservations about her presence. She is a doping cheat, after all, and while anyone who has served a ban legally deserves a right to a second chance, it does appear strange to have a convicted doper competing when athletes who have never been directly implicated are banned. And Stepanova, lest we forget, did not give herself up of her own accord. Like other reformed cheats such as cyclists David Millar and Tyler Hamilton, it was only once she was caught that she decided to come forward.

The IAAF response, we have heard over and over again, is that only by encouraging more whistleblowers to come forward will we ever solve wider problems. “There is no other way of catching effective cheats,” I was told. “Testing just doesn’t work.”

This is not an entirely new idea, with many former team-mates of cyclist Lance Armstrong handed lenient punishments after cooperating with the United States Anti-Doping Agency investigation. A quote by Winston Churchill, uttered, funnily enough, in relation to Russia, springs to mind: “If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil,” he said.

Stepanova is not the devil, of course, but an athlete who was once a pawn in a wider game who bravely decided to say enough was enough, at huge risk to her personal safety and future.

But in this light, the IOC’s perceived reluctance to adapt their rules so she can compete under the Olympic flag in Rio is more understandable, although made less so as their reason appears more to maintain political relations with Russia than for any wider reason.

The decision also opened all sorts of doors, as seen by the audacious attempt from Turkey’s former Olympic 1500m champion Aslı Çakır Alptekin to have an eight-year ban for a second doping offence ended five years early, and in time for her to compete at Rio 2016, because she cooperated with a WADA investigation into an alleged bribe she was offered to pay in return for avoiding a ban by two sons of ex-IAAF chief Lamine Diack.

Aslı Çakır Alptekin was unsuccessful in her attempt to have her doping ban lifted early for whistleblowing ©Getty Images
Aslı Çakır Alptekin was unsuccessful in her attempt to have her doping ban lifted early for whistleblowing ©Getty Images

Quite rightly, this was rejected by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), who ruled that she had not done enough to justify such a reduction.

The rules here are muddled and unclear, however. An independent report published today lambasted UK Anti-Doping for refusing to allow another doping cheat turned whistleblower, cyclist Dan Stevens, from having a suspension reduced despite his testimony having been used to conduct follow-up enquiries against others.

The trouble is, as is becoming increasingly clear, it is hard to fulfil a consistent approach where doping is concerned.

Take Darya Klishina, for instance, the two-time European indoor champion long jumper and the only other Russian so far deemed eligible by the IAAF, solely because she has spent the last three years based in Florida.

When I used to be part of an athletics club, we would spend a week each April doing what was officially called “warm weather training”, but was really an excuse for a holiday in the Portuguese Algarve. We stayed in the same resort hotel that Russian athletes used as their winter training base, and Klishina, a striking 5ft 9inch blonde, made an impression on our group of teenagers and early 20-somethings. One time, one of us was even brave enough to try and talk to her, only to be swiftly brushed off with a resounding “Niet”.

On another occasion, a member of our group opened a draw in their hotel room to find a bag filled with what appeared to be blood, filled in bags covered in Russian writing. They handed it in at hotel reception - the hotel which had been benefitting hugely from the team's presence over the winter - and nothing more was heard about it. The Russians were still there when we next came the following year.

I am not for a minute accusing Klishina of doping, but the point is, she was a member of the 40 or 50 strong Russian group, fully integrated into the system. At some point soon after, she decided to up sticks and move to Florida, and does this really mean she is now separate?

Darya Klishina and Yuliya Stepanova are the only Russians deemed eligible to compete at Rio 2016 by the IAAF ©Getty Images
Darya Klishina and Yuliya Stepanova are the only Russians deemed eligible to compete at Rio 2016 by the IAAF ©Getty Images

Isinbayeva, conversely, spent time at her residence in Monte Carlo in 2013 and 2014, therefore out of the Russian system, only to then return to Volgograd in 2015, and to the tainted testing. This therefore appears a very arbitrary procedure to use.

But, then again, what else can be done? As we have written so many times before, it is vital that sports bodies take this opportunity to punish Russia, and if they fail to do that, they will send a signal that doping will always be tolerated.

So, yes, it is not consistent or fair, and surely similar investigations should be opened against countries like Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Azerbaijan, all of whom are now banned from weightlifting at Rio 2016. Not to mention Kenya, Morocco, Ethiopia, Jamaica, and - before the inevitable “political” criticisms begin - Britain, United States, Germany and the rest of the Western world. WADA, of course, needs more money for this to be possible.

Another complicated question to have re-emerged this week concerns the individual athlete. At risk of over-simplifying, all those implicated in doping scandals can be fitted on a broad spectrum. This varies from, at one end, someone, like Armstrong, who is adjudged to have systematically and knowingly orchestrated his own doping programme and calculated how to avoid detection. At the other end, you have those, like East German athletes of the 1980s, who are not even aware of the substances they are taking and are entirely at the whim of their coaches and doctors.

A CAS hearing took place last week into marathon runner Rita Jeptoo, who, after testing positive for EPO (erythropoietin) in 2014, remains the highest-profile Kenyan doping cheat. The IAAF are attempting to have her suspension extended for knowingly taking the banned blood booster, and attempting to evade its detection. But chaos reigned on the eve of the phone hearing when her lawyer pulled-out, claiming “discrimination” against her client. CAS commanded her to represent herself, before circulating a statement claiming Jeptoo hung-up - or “opted to leave” - midway through the hearing; subsequently denied by the athlete.

CAS received criticism for their handling of the Rita Jeptoo doping hearing last week ©Getty Images
CAS received criticism for their handling of the Rita Jeptoo doping hearing last week ©Getty Images

It appeared strange that a lawyer should pull-out so soon beforehand, but at the same time, CAS do not appear to have been providing much support for someone who has been described as “functionally illiterate”. Jeptoo seemingly fits on the East German rather than the Armstrong end of the spectrum and it is her coaches, agents and support staff who appear the real villains.

It must be remembered that athletes are very often at the whims of others, and while there is a lot of rhetoric on punishing “entourage members”, not enough is being done in practice.

On the other hand, you have someone like Alex Schwazer, the Italian racewalker who served a four-year ban after tearfully admitting to having stored EPO in his fridge, only to return to action this year with a world-leading time before he was confirmed as having failed once again last week.

Doping cases, then, are clearly all different. There are no uniform responses and governing bodies will continue to deviate between lenience and overly harsh responses.

Given the complexity of tackling doping in sport today, it is often hard to act in any other way.