Russian President Putin, in comments made in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk where he oversaw preparation for the 2019 World Winter Universiade (a student sports meet), set out the Russian response to the admission – reported in a leaked IOC letter – that the claims in the McLaren report are insufficient as evidence against any individual athlete and that Professor McLaren seems to be retreating from his claim that there was a massive state sponsored conspiracy to carry out doping in Russian sport.
Putin’s words were firm but conciliatory, and were in line with what the Russians have been saying all along.
Firstly, it is important to stress that Putin admitted that there has been widespread doping in Russia. This is a point that some people have been resisting, or which they have been seeking to relativise by saying that doping is also widespread in other countries.
The second point is undoubtedly true, and there is no doubt the Russians have been treated differently from others. I question whether the picture would appear much better if the athletes of any other country were subjected to the same sort of relentless investigation to which Russian athletes have been.
The fact nonetheless remains that this is an illegal activity, and it is never an excuse for an illegal activity that there are others also guilty of committing it. Putin and the Russians authorities fully understand this, and they have been saying it all along, ever since the scandal first broke in the autumn of 2015. Putin said it again in his comments in Krasnoyarsk
……..we need to acknowledge that there are established and identified cases of doping here, and this is a totally unacceptable situation.
What this means is that our existing anti-doping monitoring system has not worked effectively, and this is our fault, and is something we need to admit and address directly. I hope very much that the Investigative Committee will see the needed investigation through to its completion and will identify all those responsible for this situation.
However Putin’s most interesting comments were about some of the more sensational allegations in McLaren’s report.
First of all, Putin knocked on the head the very idea that there was a state sponsored conspiracy. In doing so he homed in on the words in the leaked IOC letter that appeared to concede the point
We know the latest assessments from the officials at WADA and our colleagues from the IOC, who note that the McLaren Commission had inaccurate translations or inadequate evidence. Let me say again, and we said it repeatedly, that Russia has never had, and I hope never will have, a state system supporting doping. On the contrary, Russia will only combat doping.
Compare this with my own recent comments about the WADA admission in the IOC letter
What is however by far the most interesting thing in the IOC’s letter is that it homes in on the growing doubts that the doping conspiracy in Russian sport which Professor McLaren claims to have uncovered was really state sponsored. Here is what the IOC says about that
The complexity of the Schmid Commission’s work is considerable since for instance, in his first interim report, Professor McLaren describes a “state sponsored system” whilst in the final full report in December he described an “institutional conspiracy.” The Commission will now have to consider what this change means and which individuals, organisations or government authorities may have been involved.
(bold italics added)
That looks to me like an implicit admission that the evidence points to the doping conspiracy being the work of Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of RUSADA, Russia’s formerly WADA approved dope testing lab, rather than anyone in the government.
This is of course exactly the point I made at length in my discussion of Professor McLaren’s second report
Putin also homed in on what is the weakest link in the chain of forensic evidence produced by Professor McLaren: the scratch marks on the sample bottles. Here is what he had to say about that
Of course, and naturally enough, there is this issue of claims regarding scratches of some kind on some of the test samples. We do not understand what kind of evidence can we talk about because when we provided the test samples there were no complaints. If there was a problem with scratches of whatever kind, this should have been noted in the relevant reports, but there was nothing of this sort.
In other words, these samples were stored somewhere, and we cannot be held responsible for the storage conditions.
I have previously discussed the problems with this evidence, if it is indeed evidence at all
…..on the crucial question of the illicit opening of the sample bottles, Professor McLaren admits that he has no witness – significantly not even Dr. Rodchenkov – who claims to have seen it done, and therefore has no evidence for how it was supposedly done. The forensic evidence upon which he relies is purely inferential: the opinion of a single expert as to how it might have been done (not how it was done) based on an already pre-existing assumption that it was done.
As for the scratch marks on the bottles, to my mind they do not prove anything until it is shown that they can have no other cause than the illicit opening of the bottles. That is something that requires far more forensic testing than Professor McLaren has had done, and is an issue about which the opinion of more than one expert is required, and concerning which the opinion of the Swiss manufacturer certainly needs to be sought.
Of course none of this means that what Professor McLaren and the expert allege was done to the bottles didn’t happen, or that the bottles weren’t opened as they say they were. However it does leave their claims open to challenge, and the case nowhere near proved.
Nonetheless Putin wisely is looking forward, in order to close down the whole affair.
In my discussion of Professor McLaren’s second report I said that the best thing for the Russians to do would be to take on board those criticisms which have been made of them which are valid and to set up an anti-doping system in Russia which is not only as close to full-proof as any such system can ever be, but which will establish the gold standard for such a system
The way forward now is to put all the damage done by this affair behind, and to concentrate on setting up in Russia the best and most full-proof possible system of testing, which will enable Russia to set the gold standard in this area, and which will make it possible for Russia to be fully reintegrated in world sport with a minimum of embarrassment.
That is exactly the wise course President Putin and the Russians are taking. Here is what he said
As you know, we are putting into place a new anti-doping system. It will be transferred from the Sports Ministry and Government oversight to an independent organisation, as many countries have done, and not in any figurative sense, but quite literally. The laboratory will be located on premises belonging to Moscow State University, and we will help them to obtain the modern equipment, technology and specialists they need. I hope that we will no longer have any swindlers, who organise doping programmes themselves and then flee abroad. I hope that our independent specialists and foreign specialists will help us to develop a strict and effective anti-doping system.
I hope too that Vitaly Smirnov’s commission as a public organisation will continue its work to supervise the anti-doping organisations’ work here in Russia. Of course, we must also work to ensure that doping does not arise in youth and student sport. These young people are just at the start of their sports careers. Let me say once more that we will do everything needed to organise positive, active and effective work with all our partners, including WADA and the International Olympic Committee.
Putin’s words about “swindlers, who organise doping programmes themselves and then flee abroad” refer to Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, who the Russians accuse of being the mastermind behind the whole doping conspiracy. As I have discussed previously, the wording in the IOC letter suggests that the IOC may also be coming round to that view.
To be clear, the setting up of a new dope testing system does not mean that the Russians are going to abandon the legal claims they are bringing. The innocent athletes who were barred from the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games on the strength of what both the IOC and WADA now recognise was insufficient evidence are in a strong position to press their claims and will surely do so. I would however say that the IOC’s and WADA’s admission that the evidence against these athletes was insufficient almost certainly means these cases will settle out of court, with probably quite large sums of compensation being agreed. My guess is that there are already discussions underway to that effect, which may explain the conciliatory tone of Putin’s remarks.
This remains a deeply unsatisfactory and shameful affair. Regardless of what happens now, Professor McLaren and the Western media, aided and abetted by some irresponsible athletes in the West who ought to have known better, have created an image of Russian sports for the Western public which is probably indelible. I say this because I am sure that the Western media will give virtually no publicity to any formal retractions of Professor McLaren’s claims the IOC, the International Paralympic Committee, the IAAF or WADA might make, whilst if any legal proceedings are eventually brought against Dr. Rodchenkov I doubt these will be widely reported either. The Western public will therefore be left with the impression that the allegations against the Russians are true and have been proved.
Beyond that there is the grotesquely discriminatory way in which Russian athletes have been treated, and the indifference to the most basic principles of due process shown by people in the West when the campaign was launched against them. Despite my experience of the decades of negative stereotyping of Russians which takes place in the West, I am still shocked by it.
Nonetheless I suspect that the worst part of this affair is now drawing to a close, enabling Russians to compete on equal terms in international sport once more.