Efforts to Test Russian Athletes for Doping Ahead of Olympic Games Prove Difficult: Report

The World Anti-Doping Agency has encountered bizarre obstructions for testing.

— -- A new report from the World Anti-Doping Agency has revealed that efforts to introduce rigorous doping testing in Russia ahead of the Rio Olympics have run into difficulties, meeting with administrative obstructions from government organizations and encountering sometimes bizarre tricks by some athletes.

The report, published on WADA’s website today, comes just two days before a crucial vote to decide whether Russia has reformed its anti-doping procedures among its track and field athletes enough to compete at this summer’s Olympics in Rio-de-Janeiro.

Among the new allegations are claims that Russian athletes had deliberately registered in closed military cities off-limits to foreigners, preventing inspectors from reaching them; that officers had been “intimidated” by security services and that Russia’s anti-doping agency’s chaotic information databases are hindering testing.

Today, Russian officials said that many of the issues had already been resolved and much of the blame lies with administrative missteps by the British anti-doping agency collecting the tests. The head of the agency has admitted it is facing logistical challenges and said they shouldn’t be linked to whether Russia attends the Olympics.

The report details efforts by the British anti-doping agency, UKAD, to test Russian athletes in place of Russian agencies that were stripped of their licenses after they were found to have colluded in the doping cover up that led to Russia’s potential Olympic ban. UKAD was commissioned by WADA to conduct testing to restore confidence that Russian athletes are clean.

But of the 1,191 tests that UKAD has attempted to take since February, it has succeeded in only doing 455. Of these 73 were not collected because athletes could not be found.

Of the over 700 other tests that the agency failed to carry out 90% were caused by what is described as UKAD’s “lack of capacity”. Much of that appeared to be UKAD officers’ inability to reach some areas or a shortage of staff able to cover the athletes.

But the report also describes frequent efforts by Russian athletes to obstruct doping officers from testing them, as well as widespread administrative hindrances by Russia’s anti-doping bodies.

Russia has committed to cooperating in reforming its anti-doping procedures. But the report depicts a system of administrative unhelpfulness and sometimes chaos, that meant it was often impossible for doping inspectors to find athletes.

The report said that Russia’s anti-doping agency, RUSADA had in “general poor quality” information on its athletes’ whereabouts, with many addresses for them wrong. The report also said that officers had found it difficult to find competitions where they were meant to be doing tests because they were not told where they were happening or only informed a day in advance.

The report also said WADA labs had found packages transporting samples had been opened by Russian customs officers; others were missing the correct documentation.

UKAD and Russian officials attributed many of the problems to damage inflicted by having to fire much of the Russian anti-doping agencies’ staff following the doping scandal, saying it was unrealistic to expect it could still conduct effective testing. The new report does not accuse RUSADA of deliberate wrongdoing.Besides the administrative problems though, the report records the elaborate and sometimes farcical lengths some Russian athletes are said to go to avoid testing. Some athletes are accused of deliberately registering in so-called closed cities-- towns built around military or strategic sites closed to foreigners since the Soviet-era. Anti-doping officers were therefore sometimes unable to reach the athletes or to surprise them with tests.

The report said, anti-doping officers were “intimidated” when accessing the cities, and had been threatened by “armed FSB agents” with deportation. In another case, the report said, Olympic qualifying competitions had been held in areas with “ongoing civil conflicts”, seemingly to deter officers from being sent. Other efforts were less elaborate. In one case, the report notes, an athlete was “observed running away” to avoid test officers.

In perhaps the most bizarre case, a female athlete is said to have “inserted” a container into her body, apparently containing clean urine. The container though “leaked onto the floor” whilst the athlete was standing with a doping inspector, who noted it and forced her to give another sample. It tested positive.

Russia’s track and field athletes were suspended from international competition last year, after a WADA report found systemic doping among them. On Friday, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) will vote on whether to reinstate them for the Olympics. The decision hinges on Russia proving it is changing attitudes to doping among its athletes.

Today, Russian officials acknowledged that some athletes were still seeking to cover their doping, but said the other systemic problems were being fixed. They said they knew it would take a long time for Russia’s anti-doping system to be restored and that the difficulties were to be expected. Officials said the problem of closed cities was a small one and in any case they were giving access.

The new head of Russia’s anti-doping agency, Anna Antseliovich told ABC News, that the number of athletes registered in the cities was “no more than 10-15”.

Natalya Zhelanova, the top anti-doping advisor to Russia’s ministry of sport, said that they had informed WADA of the need to request permission to the cities in December but had only begun receiving these requests in May. Zhelanova said she was only aware of one case of an inspector being unable to enter a city.

Antseliovich, who was appointed to oversee the reform of RUSADA after the scandal broke, said that many of the issues were already being resolved. She said RUSADA was gathering athlete information and those not cooperating were being punished. She blamed the agency’s poor database partly on so many old staff having to be removed in the wake of the doping scandal.

She also said she could not understand the claim that officers had been unaware when competitions were happening, since RUSADA always shared whatever information they had.

Antseliovich said she hoped that the report showed that “we are working. We are changing.”

Questions about UKAD’s execution of its testing mission have been raised in the past month. This week, the agency’s chairman, David Kenworthy, told a British parliamentary committee that UKAD had only done “50%” of the testing it had hoped to, largely because Russia was too large for the number of inspectors he had.

“It’s a massive job because of the size of the country. The main problem is finding Russian speaking doping control officers. Or with Russian visas,” Kenworthy said in the televised meeting.

Michele Verroken, who formerly oversaw anti-doping in Britain and was present at the hearing, questioned whether it was right Russia was being criticized for failings, saying UKAD’s appeared to have made mistakes.

“I find it very, very odd,” Verroken said. “Russia is a big country. Why wouldn’t you know that from the start?” Verroken said she thought it did not make sense to criticize Russia for weak anti-doping controls now, having forced it to effectively deconstruct its anti-doping agencies.

Kenworthy himself said it was unrealistic to connect reforming Russia’s anti-doping system with whether to allow the country to compete at the Olympics, saying it would take years. RUSADA fired many of its staff after the scandal, he said, meaning it was unable to function effectively. “It will take a long, long time for Russia to get back to normal,” he said. “But the decision is this week. So you can’t link the two.”

He also said that there had only been one incident involving a closed city.

Ahead of the Games, Russia’s track and field federation that has agreed to subject its athletes to unusually intensive testing, requiring that they pass 3-6 tests to be eligible for them. To speed up the process, the federation has created a pool of around 200 athletes, considered it best medal hopes and hired another firm, the private company IDTM to do the tests. UKAD is not involved in these tests.

Earlier this month though, Russian athletes from the pool told ABC News that many had not yet had the full number of tests. Some said they believed this was because doping officers were struggling to get round the large number of athletes requiring testing in such a short time.

Mikhail Butov, head of Russia’s track and field federation, though said that he was unaware of the problems described in the report. He said that IDTM had told him everything was going according to schedule.

“Before the Olympic Games we will complete this process,” Butov said. “I’m sure.”