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New York Times completely wrong on Russia admitting doping conspiracy

On Tuesday 27th December 2016 The New York Times published an article under the headline “Russians no longer dispute Olympic Doping Operation”.

The article alleged that a Russian sports official, Anna Antselovich, who is the acting Director General of RUSADA, Russia’s national anti-doping agency, had admitted to an “institutional conspiracy” to dope athletes, though she was reported to have denied that the country’s highest leaders were involved.

The key section in The New York Times article reads as follows

Over several days of interviews here with The New York Times, Russian officials said they no longer disputed a damning set of facts that detailed a doping program with few, if any, historical precedents.

“It was an institutional conspiracy,” Anna Antseliovich (sic), the acting director general of Russia’s national antidoping agency, said of years’ worth of cheating schemes, while emphasizing that the government’s top officials were not involved.

I was immediately suspicious when I read these words since they appeared to be in flat contradiction to things Russian President Putin had said about the doping scandal in his annual end-of-year press conference given just four days before on 23rd December 2016.

It turns out that I was right to be suspicious because RUSADA is now angrily complaining that The New York Times has twisted Antselovich’s words.  Here is a report of what RUSADA is saying provided by the Russian news agency TASS

In response to the publication in The New York Times, RUSADA states that the words of acting General Director Antselovich were distorted and taken out of the context.  During Antselovich’s talk with journalist Rebecca Ruiz, the acting general director made a remark that in his report of December 9, 2016 Richard McLaren had given up the phrase ‘state-sponsored doping system’ and used the words ‘institutional conspiracy,’ thus excluding the involvement of the country’s top leadership. Unfortunately, Rebecca Ruiz took these words out of the context, thus creating an impression that the RUSADA leadership admits to the institutional scheme of doping cover-up in Russia.”

In other words Antselovich pointed out to The New York Times that even McLaren has stopped talking about a ‘state-sponsored doping system’ but now talks only of an ‘institutional conspiracy’.  The New York Times twisted these words in order to claim that Antselovich had admitted to an ‘institutional conspiracy’, when she had done no such thing

It is a classic tabloid journalist’s trick, treating the denial of one thing as the admission of another.  I will here express my sorrow that a journalist of The New York Times, once a truly great newspaper, made use of it.

Before proceeding further I should say that in my opinion Antselovich is reading more into McLaren’s words than is there.  McLaren’s second report makes it quite clear that he believes that the doping conspiracy which he alleges was ‘state sponsored’.  I think the contrast Antselovich is making between McLaren’s use of the words ‘state-sponsored doping system’ and ‘institutional conspiracy’ is a false one, and is a product of wishful thinking.

Having said this, the key point to take away from RUSADA’s statement is that contrary to what The New York Times is saying, the Russians most certainly do continue to deny that there was anything which remotely resembled a state-sponsored doping system’, or an ‘institutional conspiracy’ to create such a doping system, in Russia.

What they do admit, as a careful reading of the comments of the other sports officials quoted in The New York Times article in fact shows, is that there was widespread doping in Russia.  However they place the blame for that firmly on Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, RUSADA’s former director.  They also say, and this too is evident from their comments quoted in The New York Times article, that if athletes in other countries had been subjected to the same sort of scrutiny as Russian athletes have been, the evidence of doping which would come to light would be at least as great.

I make this last point because The New York Times is reporting the comments of the sports officials, which are supposed to support the “admission” Antselovich is supposed to have made, but which she did not in fact make, in a way that does not make it clear that what the Russian sports officials were complaining about is the different treatment of their athletes.  Instead The New York Times reports these comments as a further admission of guilt, though one supposedly made without any trace of shame, and couched in words of “defiance”

But even as he and other officials signalled their acceptance of the fundamental findings of Mr. McLaren’s investigation, they were largely unconciliatory, suggesting that cheating to benefit Russia had served to offset what they perceived as preferential treatment for Western nations by global sports authorities.

(bold italics added)

The clearest statement of the Russian position on the doping scandal was the one made by Russian President Putin during his recent end-of-year press conference on 23rd December 2016.  I republish it here in full

Let me begin with doping as such and the problem of doping. First, Russia has never created – this is absolutely impossible – a state-run doping system and has never supported doping, and we will do our best to prevent this in the future. I wanted to repeat this as my first point.

Secondly, like any other country, we have a doping problem. We must admit this and by doing so, we must do everything in our power to prevent any doping. As such, we need to closely cooperate with the International Olympic Committee, WADA and other international organisations. We will do this. I hope that the ongoing changes, which are not only about personnel but are systemic and structural changes, will help us achieve these goals. In addition, the Investigative Committee and the Prosecutor’s Office are investigating all cases of alleged doping, and they will bring these cases to their logical conclusion.

As for the so-called whistle-blowers who ran away from the country, grass up everyone or make up things, I would like to say a few words. I do not remember exactly the name of the person who fled Russia. He headed the Russian Anti-Doping Agency. But where did he work before that? In Canada. And what did he do after that? He came to Russia and brought all kinds of nasty stuff with him, while serving as a high-ranking official.

It is hard to imagine that he managed to cross the Canadian or US border carrying banned substances without being detected. You know what it means. Many of you have crossed the US and Canadian borders, there are very strict controls there.

He travelled back and forth many times to bring this nasty stuff here. It was his personal undertaking, he forced people to take these substances, and even came up with some sort of sanctions against those who refused to do so, for example, the swimmers.

When he was exposed, he escaped law enforcement, fled, and started slurring everyone in order to protect himself and secure a place in the sun in hope of a better life. At a certain point he will get what he wants. But after that, just as it happens to any rascal, they will drop him. Nobody needs people like this.

Why did he not fight here? This makes me think that somebody was behind him. They waited for a certain moment and started spreading these false stories. But this does not mean that Russia does not have a problem with doping. We do have this problem, and we must fight it. We must acknowledge this, and in doing so we must focus on athletes’ health.

As for WADA, I am not entitled to assess its performance. It is up to the International Olympic Committee to do it. However, as I have already said, operations of any anti-doping agency, including WADA, should be completely transparent, clear and verifiable, and we must be informed about the results of their work. What does this mean? This means that the international sports community should know who is to be tested, when and by what means, what the results are and what measures are being taken to punish those responsible, what is being done to prevent such incidents in the future. What’s going on? Are we talking about the defence industry? No. But in this case it is unclear why everything is so secretive? This should be an open process. They always ask us to be transparent. Transparency is very important in this area.

I cannot fail to agree with what a number of legendary athletes said about the recent decisions to cancel major competitions in Russia. They said that nobody knew anything. But if it was known before, why was it made public right now?

You know, politics are always involved in cases like this. Just as culture, sport should be free from politics, because sport and culture should both help bring people together instead of driving them apart.

(bold italics added)

I have highlighted certain parts of Putin’s comments because in them Putin has actually gone further than any other Russian official commenting on the scandal has so far done, and some of the things he says are very interesting, and should raise eyebrows.

Firstly, and pace the article in The New York Times, Putin categorically denies McLaren’s central allegation that there was a state sponsored doping system in Russia.

Secondly, he clearly says that there was a conspiracy to dope Russian athletes, but he accuses Dr. Rodchenkov (the person whose name Putin says he cannot remember) not the Russian authorities of being behind it.

On the facts I have seen that is certainly possible.  Here is what I said about it previously

For what it’s worth my opinion is that if there was a conspiracy the facts point more to Dr. Rodchenkov being its originator and mastermind than to anyone else in the Russian political or sports structure.  This is in part because some of the elements of the state sponsored conspiracy Dr. Rodchenkov alleges – like the alleged role of the FSB – seem to me to belong more to the world of spy fiction than to real life.  I doubt the FSB had any role in this affair, and Dr. Rodchenkov’s claim it did, and his equally unlikely claim to have been one of its agents, all but confirms that he is not telling the whole truth.

Thirdly, Putin clearly implies – though he does not quite say – that Dr. Rodchenkov was acting on instructions from someone in the West, and that his activities were being controlled from there, and were intended to create the very doping scandal Russian sports is now going through, presumably in order to damage Russia and to discredit Russian sport.  

That would make Dr. Rodchenkov not just a criminal but an agent provocateur.

I have seen no evidence that supports this claim.  Nor obviously do I know whether Putin has private information that supports it, or whether he simply spoke out of anger. 

What I do say, and what I have said many times before, is that the whole claim of a state-sponsored doping conspiracy in Russia seems to me to be heavily over-reliant on the largely unsupported evidence of Dr. Rodchenkov, who has an obvious motive to fabricate the claim

[McLaren’s] final report, like his first report, depends heavily – in my opinion excessively – on the evidence of a single witness: Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov. 

Personally I would be far more uneasy about accepting the truth of what Dr. Rodchenkov has to say than Professor McLaren appears to be, given Dr. Rodchenkov’s own admitted role in the doping scandal, and the fact that he is on the run from the Russian police. 

Both of these facts seem to me to give Dr. Rodchenkov an obvious motive to implicate the Russian authorities in his own admitted misdeeds, both in order to exculpate himself in the scandal, and to secure his claim for asylum in the West. 

That fact never seems to worry Professor McLaren or indeed anyone else in the West, where Dr. Rodchenkov is constantly hailed as a whistleblower rather than as a fugitive from justice, even though I would have thought the point was obvious.

On the subject of the Western authorities and media ignoring all the obvious doubts there should be concerning Dr. Rodchenkov, and accepting him uncritically as a heroic whistleblower, we have a further example in the article in The New York Times

Russian sports officials had vehemently denied the doping operation’s existence despite a detailed confession by the nation’s former antidoping lab chief, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, in a New York Times article last May that was subsequently confirmed by global antidoping regulators.

This is one of only two references to Dr. Rodchenkov by name in the entire New York Times article, though it beggars belief that the Russian officials it quotes, including Anna Antselovich, did not bring up his name frequently.  Suffice to say that Antselovich is now the head of Dr. Rodchenkov’s laboratory.

I do not know how this article in The New York Times came to be written.  Possibly Rebecca Ruiz, its author, misunderstood the points the Russian sports officials were making to her, though I find that difficult to believe.

However given that what the article claims the sports official told her is so flatly contradicted by what President Putin said in his end-of-year press conference just four days before the article was published, and which Putin said after Rebecca Ruiz had carried out her interviews, the decision of The New York Times’s editors to publish the article under the headline “Russians no longer dispute Olympic Doping Operation” without apparently making any modification to it in light of what Putin said seems to me little short of extraordinary.

Since the article is obviously wrong I wonder whether The New York Times – the ‘paper of record’ – will now admit its mistake, and retract and apologise for the article?  I have to say that I don’t expect it to.

What do you think?

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