Image credit: Russiangate – DOPING SCANDALS IN RUSSIAN SPORTS
There is often a difference, sometimes a big difference between public perception, even media reports, and the facts. Recent news from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) illustrate this for sport.
The belief that Russian sportsmen and women indulge in doping to a much higher degree than for other nations is widespread. Our media reinforces that belief – and, true, the International Olympic Committee and WADA certainly provide plenty of information to support it. Bans on Russian athletes have been common lately and there is widespread media coverage any time there is even a suspicion that a Russian athlete may have violated doping rules.
But what are the facts?
Well, we can check as WADA periodically publishes data for athlete doping violations. In my article Quantifying the problem of international sports doping I discussed the data for 2014 This showed that when the number of tests taken for each country’s athletes is considered, Russian athlete’s ranked 19th on the list of positive doping tests. The high number of positive tests for that nation can be explained by the much higher number of tests actually taken.
WADA has now published its data for 2016 (see WADA publishes Anti-Doping Rule Violations Report for 2016). Yes, a few years old, but there is quite a time between taking the test samples, declaring a possible violation, considering the factors involved and finally declaring a violation. The WADA report (2016 Anti-Doping Rule Violations (ADRVs) Report) includes all the data up until the end of 1017.
So what are the facts?
Contrary to public perception, athletes from the Russian Federation do not top the table for the number of doping violations – they actually rank 6th (together with India) with 69 violations (ADRVs – anti-doping rule violations). After Italy (147 violations), France (86), USA (76), Australia (75) and Belgium (73).
Unfortunately, the current report does not give data for the total number of tests according to the country – only for the national sporting federations. This is not the same thing.
I suspect, given the international furore over doping violations by Russian athletes, and the extra testing imposed by the IOC, Russian athletes may have again undergone a higher frequency of testing. It could be that the Russian Federation actually ranks lower than 6th when considered on a proportional basis.
New Zealand ranks 44th on the WADA list with 7 violations. Good news, I guess. But I wonder what our ranking would be if proven violations were reported as a percentage of tests taken.
Good news also is that the percentage of confirmed violations worldwide is relatively low overall. There were a total 1,326 ADRVs from 229,514 samples taken -0 a rate of only 0.6%. Perhaps sports doping is not as bad as we are led to think. Or perhaps it shows that the huge investment in anti-doping measures has been paying off.
The Russian doping scandal
Finally, I should mention this is not the only current news on the issue of doping by athletes from the Russian Federation. Over the last few years, our media has often covered this issue, apparently exposing a scandal involving the official Russian testing laboratory in Moscow and a state-sponsored scheme to hide doping of athletes at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. This scandal has helped keep the problem of doping by Russian athletes in the public mind – and Russian leaders themselves have not denied there was a problem – although they rejected the claims of state-sponsored schemes.
Many people think the Russian athletes have been treated badly. I queried the reliability of the McLaren report which was used for IOC banning of a large number of Russian athletes. (see Ethics and the doping scandal – a response to Guest Work). The banned athletes have also taken legal action to get their names cleared.
A very significant ruling has recently been made public on these bans. The Court of Arbitration for Sport have released their ruling on the case of Alexander Legkov (see CAS delivers two reasoned awards in the matter of 39 Russian athletes v. the IOC). This ruling found that the case against Legkov had not been proved (see the ARBITRAL AWARD). The evidence of the main witness (“whistleblower”/criminal Grigori Rodchenkov), and hence by implication the McLaren report relying on that evidence, was found unreliable.
This is just the tip of the iceberg and only one of the 39 decisions made public last February 1st which upheld the appeals of 27 Russian athletes and partly upheld the appeals of 12 others.
I guess, better late than never. However, public perception is strongly influenced by first impressions and first allegations (especially when supported by bodies like the IOC). It is going to take some time before the public perception of the problem of sports doping with Russian athletes will become more realistic.