On Friday, Russia's sports ministry denied accusations of state-sponsored doping that implicate more than 1,000 athletes across more than 30 sports in sample swapping, tampering with samples, and taking steroid cocktails designed to evade Olympic testing.
These accusations come from the from the second report from the World Anti-Doping Agency's (WADA) investigation of Russian doping, whose chief investigator described the system as an “institutionalized and disciplined medal-winning strategy and conspiracy.” The report, which confirmed and expanded on evidence found in a first report released in July, states that athletes competing in the Summer, Winter, and Paralympic Games from 2011 to 2015 benefited from a doping conspiracy that encompassed the Russian Ministry of Sport, the Russian anti-doping body, and the FSB intelligence service.
"It is impossible to know just how deep and how far back this conspiracy goes," lead investigator Richard McLaren said at a news conference in London. "For years, international sports competitions have unknowingly been hijacked by Russians. Coaches and athletes have been playing on an uneven field. Sports fans and spectators have been deceived. It's time that this stops."
In the investigation, Mr. McLaren, a law professor at Western University in Ontario, Canada, and his team found forensic evidence, including scratches and markings left on previously sealed samples, that investigators said helped prove the samples and been swapped and tampered with. In some cases they were able to recreate methods used to open sealed sampling bottles.
While Russia has denied allegations of state-sponsored doping, the Russian Ministry of Sports has agreed to cooperate with further investigations.
"The Russian Ministry of Sports will examine carefully the information provided in the report to shape a constructive position," the Ministry said in a statement, as Reuters reports. "At the same time, the Ministry of Sports denies that any government programs exist to support doping in sport and declares that it will continue to fight doping from a position of zero tolerance. The Sports Ministry is ready to cooperate with international organizations to improve the Russian and world anti-doping program."
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko, however, told state media that the country might pursue legal action. "Now we need to calmly move into the legal arena, which is what will be done," he told Tass, a Russian news agency.
Politics complicates the already difficult problem of uprooting any doping systems. Many observers have called on harsher bans on Russian athletes, but some worry it could further exacerbate tensions between Western countries and Russia, where the punishments could be held up as evidence of a smear campaign.
"Sports in Russia have always been dependent on state policy, and they are seen as a critical part of our relations with the world," Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, told The Christian Science Monitor in July, shortly after the release of WADA's first report:
"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."
But despite the political stakes, some Russian experts agree on what needs to change.
"There has to be tough control from the top, to ensure there is no backsliding," Alexei Dospekhov, a sports writer for the Moscow daily Kommersant, told the Monitor's Fred Weir at the time. "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."
As a result of Mr. McLaren’s first report, WADA recommended that all Russian athletes be banned from the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Instead, the International Olympic committee opted for allow international federations to pick and choose Russian athletes to compete.
The release of the this newest report has brought on renewed calls for reforms or punishments ahead of the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and concerns about other sporting events in Russia, such as the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.