How do you solve a problem like Russia's sports doping?

While geopolitical debates have put Russia and the international athletics community at odds over the country's allegedly state-sanctioned doping, both sides identify remarkably similar remedies.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Russia's Maria Kuchina (l.) and Natalya Aksyonova prepare to compete in Russian Athletics Cup, at Zhukovsky, outside Moscow on Thursday. Russia lost its appeal Thursday against the Olympic ban on its track and field athletes, a decision which could add pressure on the IOC to exclude the country entirely from next month's games in Rio de Janeiro.

At first glance, the divide between Russia and international athletic bodies over how to deal with the country's allegedly state-backed doping – and the harsh punishments that are looming for Russia and hundreds of its athletes – looks insurmountable.

Western experts argue that only the "nuclear option" of a total ban on Russian participation for at least one Olympic cycle will help to focus minds in Moscow. That, they say, would compel the state-run sports establishment to initiate the ground-up reforms needed to end what they call a culture of systemic doping in all branches of Russian sport, aided and abetted by government and security forces.

Russian experts argue that a blanket ban will have a negative impact on the public, and be easily represented by state TV – the primary information source for most Russians – as just another front in the West's campaign to sanction and delegitimize Russia.

But despite the acrimonious war of words, inevitably tinged with politics, there is general agreement among Western and Russian experts that Russia's doping problem is deep, pervasive, and long overdue for addressing. They even agree on many of the practical measures that would have to be taken – suggesting that if the difficult geopolitics of the situation can be circumvented, a solution is possible.

"Penalties do work. They have to be hit hard enough that they understand the need to completely start over" within the Russian sports establishment, says Don Catlin, a pioneer of anti-doping research. "They need to get rid of the Ministry of Sport, bring in completely different people, and rebuild almost from scratch. They have to clean out the whole system, and this will obviously take some time."

"There has to be tough control from the top, to ensure there is no backsliding," says Alexei Dospekhov, sports writer for the Moscow daily Kommersant. "That means we need all new people, younger people who know how things are done in the world, to replace the old guys who are there now. We need new laws, greater guarantees of transparency and accountability in these organizations. But it has to start with a complete changing of the guard in our sports establishment."

A real problem

On Thursday, the Lausanne-based Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld a ban on 68 Russian track and field athletes, imposed by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) last month after it determined that Russia had not done enough to restore confidence in its anti-doping agencies after a series of damning reports highlighted the ubiquity of the problem.

The International Olympic Committee has yet to rule on calls for a blanket ban on all Russian athletes at this year's Olympics, which is being urged by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in the wake of the most comprehensive report on the widespread and state-sponsored nature of Russian athletic doping, issued by WADA's lead investigator Richard McLaren early this week.

But while Russians are largely suspicious of geopolitical motives for the Olympic track-and-field ban – and the potential countrywide one – some are conscious that there is a real doping problem in Russian sports. The sports pages of leading Russian papers may seem an unlikely place to find angry dissent, but at least some have erupted in recent days as top sports analysts argue – in terms not too different from those of Western critics – that the entire system needs to be completely reconstructed.

"The first thing we need to do is reform the anti-doping system and get rid of those who are responsible," says Mr. Dospekhov. "This is possible. No matter how it is portrayed in the West, the fact is that some Russian sports have been quite effective in resisting doping, and creating systems to ensure their people are clean."

Dospekhov cites the Russian Volleyball Federation as an example of a branch of Russian sport that has won the confidence of its international federation, in part by having all its players tested outside of the country.

Indeed, President Vladimir Putin Friday recommended a similar idea, calling on the Russian Olympic Committee to create an independent committee made up of foreign and Russian officials to investigate doping cases. 

Vladimir Mikheyev, who has covered the issue for the semi-official Russia Beyond the Headlines, says that most Russians will not be convinced as long as WADA keeps much of its evidence of Russian wrongdoing secret. "If they have the proof they claim, they need to publish it all openly," he says.

Yet he agrees that some extraordinary measures will have to be taken to restore Russian credibility.

"Perhaps in future WADA could create an international team that would be stationed in Russia before any event, which would have the authority to monitor preparations well in advance, and to certify athletes," Mr. Mikheyev says.

'Big trouble for authorities'

No one expects anything to change in time for the Rio Games. The Olympic horizon includes the Winter Games slated for Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018, and the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo. Russia is also set to host soccer's 2018 FIFA World Cup, which could also be affected by the doping scandal.

For Russia, the ban on some, or possibly even all, of its Olympic athletes at the Rio Games poses a painful challenge.

The Kremlin has withstood two years of Western-sponsored economic sanctions over its geopolitical behavior, and is moving into what looks like a long-term military confrontation with NATO on Russia's western borders. But through all that, it has never had any difficulty articulating an uncompromising defiance toward what it sees as unwarranted outside pressure.

By contrast, the Olympic movement is a non-political global vehicle into which Russia and its predecessor the USSR have invested enormous national prestige, and the success of Russian athletes in Olympic venues has always been a point of intense pride. Polls consistently show that huge majorities of Russians disapprove of doping in sports and believe the practice should be eradicated.

"Sports in Russia have always been dependent on state policy, and they are seen as a critical part of our relations with the world," says Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center. "So, it's important for us to be winners. Hence this scandal is big trouble for our authorities. Everyone sees a picture of lies and corruption that pervades our state-sponsored sports system, and it really hurts Russia's image. The IOC is not NATO, we can't fight against it in the same way. The Kremlin will have to take some steps, perhaps fire some officials, but they will also probably manage to spin this as part of the Western campaign against Russia."

In a lengthy statement posted on the Kremlin website this week, President Vladimir Putin trod a careful line. He warned of the dangers of "politicizing" sports, complaining of the "collective punishment" inherent in the threat of blanket ban on Russian athletes and the "hasty" nature nature of WADA's judgment in the immediate run-up to the Rio Olympics. He also denied the accusation that doping is a state-sponsored project in Russia.

But he agreed that "there is no place for doping in sport," and pledged full cooperation with the investigation, as well as his support for measures to re-integrate Russia with the "Olympic family."

On Kremlin orders, Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko this week suspended five top deputies deemed to be involved in doping schemes, including the only one directly named in the McLaren Report, Deputy Sports Minister Yury Nagornykh.

Complete reform

But Dick Pound, a Canadian former competitive swimmer and founder of WADA, warns that cosmetic changes and half-measures will not solve the problem. He says that IOC failure to hold the Kremlin's feet to the fire by imposing a blanket ban on all Russian athletes would be a woeful error.

"We're dealing here with a continuation of the old Soviet system. Frankly, it will take them all missing out on an Olympics to create the necessary pressure for genuine change," he says.

"They've got to change all the officials and the whole reporting system. Probably they should invite some external supervision to verify that there has been a reform. Everybody who has been in that system would have to go to great lengths to prove their innocence. The onus shifts for those who have been produced by a system where doping is rampant and state sanctioned."

But he adds that Russia will probably find a way to come in from the cold in coming years.

"I doubt that Russia will be a permanent loss" to the Olympic movement, Mr. Pound says. "The greater danger for the Olympics is not to take draconian action now, to somehow exempt Russia from the toughest standards we can muster."

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