David Owen

Working through the 335 pages of the Independent Commission report into allegations of widespread doping in Russia on Monday night, a familiar feeling assailed me.

It was, I’m afraid, a feeling of hopelessness: hopelessness regarding our ability ever to ensure a pharmacological level playing-field in top-level sport.

Even if you believe anti-doping science is robust – and 15 years’ reporting intermittently in this area has prompted me, on various occasions, to have my doubts – the relentless stream of detailed allegations in the report conveys more clearly than anything I can recall how utterly dependent we are on a flimsy chain of human decency if we are to have even the faintest chance of largely clean competition.

The links in this human chain, all the way from the athlete to the laboratories and various networks of authority, are prey to the gamut of emotions –  greed, ambition, patriotism, envy, blind obedience – any one of which may intrude at any time to motivate a particular link not to do the right thing.

This would be hard enough to counter with unlimited staff and unlimited money; in point of fact, the policing system is hopelessly under-resourced, at least when set against the scale of its ambition, and I fear likely to remain so.

So what is to be done in the face of what is probably the prime moral conundrum of sport in the early 21st century?

Even after all these years of study, I still have more despair than answers.

Independent Commission chair Richard Pound discussed a range of damaging revelations at a press conference in Geneva on Monday
Independent Commission chair Richard Pound discussed a range of damaging revelations at a press conference in Geneva on Monday ©Getty Images

Every time I think I have convinced myself that the shadowy and intrusive anti-doping regime constructed in recent years to questionable effect is not worth the candle, the question recurs: What then? And the answer: Freak show.

I do hold a somewhat shaky belief that the health risks associated with illicit performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), unless abused in industrial, German Democratic Republic-scale quantities, have tended to be overblown by well-meaning propagandists.

I also feel much more strongly that the most potent PED in sport is money.

I suspect it would be sensible for anti-doping authorities to focus their efforts on a much narrower range of compounds and techniques – those deemed the most pernicious to athletes’ future wellbeing – while acknowledging that the front-lines in this battle are constantly shifting.

Ultimately, we cannot hope to make a sensible decision on the best way ahead until we can answer the question, Are we winning the battle?

I notice, in his impressive Geneva press conference, Richard Pound, Commission chair, alluded gamely at one point to how far short competitors in throwing events today tend to be from the tapes laid out to denote world record performances.

But to be able to answer this question in the affirmative – really answer –  you need, in my view, to be able to assert that fewer athletes today are using banned drugs and getting away with it than 15 or 20 years ago when the edifice of anti-doping started to be erected in earnest – assert it and back it up with credible statistical evidence.

That, of course, is a tough nut to crack; I have yet to encounter anyone who has done so.

In the meantime, the Commission report, available here, is a bleakly sobering read.

A couple of further points:

Having digested the report’s contents, I find it hard to believe that anti-doping samples at the Sochi 2014 Winter Games were not sent outside Russia for analysis, as happened at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

It is not just the report’s allegation that: “The reported presence of the security services (FSB) within the laboratory setting in Sochi and at the Moscow laboratory, actively imposed an atmosphere of intimidation on laboratory process and staff, and supported allegations of state influence in sports events.”

Or Pound’s response when questioned that “I don’t think we can be confident that there was no manipulation”.

There is more.

It was known that the now suspended Moscow laboratory had been under threat of suspension in late 2013.

Richard Pound said he can't be confident there was no manipulation of drug testing at Sochi 2014
Richard Pound said he can't be confident there was no manipulation of drug testing at Sochi 2014 ©Getty Images

A report by insidethegames Editor Duncan Mackay dated 18 November 2013 noted that Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko had promised that measures demanded to ensure the facility was not suspended on the eve of the Sochi Games would be carried out.

“The laboratory has been given until December 1 to bring itself up to standard by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) or Russia will suffer the embarrassment of having its accreditation temporarily withdrawn,” Mackay wrote.

A previous article, published three days earlier, said that Pound, “founding President of WADA and now chairman of the Disciplinary Committee, claimed that the Moscow laboratory should be suspended because it is not “sufficiently reliable””.

Page 209 of this week’s report, however, reads as follows:

“It is understood by the [Independent Commission] that despite the substandard performance of the laboratory, there was a distinct desire not to revoke the accreditation of the laboratory prior to the Sochi Olympics.”

A distinct desire on the part of who? On what grounds? Affording the best possible protection to clean athletes?

The report continues: “A temporary solution was, therefore, reached for the period of the Olympics, with further actions to be approved by the WADA Laboratory Committee following the Games.

“Such remedial actions remained uncompleted well after the established deadline.”

Turn the page and we learn that on 11 January 2014, less than a month before the Sochi Olympic Opening Ceremony, WADA science director Olivier Rabin and Moscow laboratory director Grigory Rodchenkov – who has just resigned - met “informally”.

Russia's Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko has come under increasing pressure
Russia's Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko has come under increasing pressure ©Getty Images

During this unsolicited meeting, the report goes on, Rodchenkov “affirmed Dr. Rabin’s assessment of the Moscow laboratory having external interferences with the analytical operations”.

Rodchenkov “stated he was operating in a system where he was forced to do things in his position.

“Dir. Rodchenkov would not elaborate what he was forced to do.”

If I were an athlete who had competed at Sochi, I think I would now want to know a lot more about the justification for leaving the anti-doping operation in Russia.

On a completely different subject, I think this week’s report also provides a good example of why any move by National Governments to ban encryption on the web on national security grounds would be a bad idea.

“On multiple occasions,” the report notes, “the email of members of the IC investigative team was targeted by outside rogue entities for cyber penetration.

“The IC employed high-level encryption devices for data storage and secure communications throughout the course of the investigation.

“All evidence exhibits are stored within encrypted storage, in a secure facility, for future reference.”