A University of North Texas professor will head to Russia next week to attend a forum with one of the most controversial figures in international sports — Russian Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko, whom the Olympics recently banned from all future games for his alleged participation in Russia's doping program. The Russian team is banned from the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea.
John Nauright, chair of the UNT Department of Kinesiology, Health Promotion and Recreation, will have better than a front-row seat as Mutko makes his first major public appearance since being banned.
"The politics of this are a little up in the air at the moment," Nauright tells the Dallas Observer. "It's a delicate dance that's going on right now."
At the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, a group of operatives put together by Mutko's sports ministry altered the urine samples of more than 100 Russian athletes to conceal a state-sponsored doping program, according to reporting from The New York Times. The covert team gained access to the samples through a specially installed hole in the games' doping control facility. Russian anti-doping experts and intelligence officers then pried open the sample bottles — which turned out to not be as tamper-proof as they were purported to be before the games — and swapped out dirty urine for clean samples taken from athletes before the latest doping regimen.
The Sochi scheme was probably the most brazen doping caper undertaken by the Russian anti-doping lab, but it was by no means the first time the Russian sports administration attempted to circumvent rules against performance-enhancing substances, according to researcher Richard McLaren's World Anti-Doping Agency-commissioned report on state-sponsored doping in Russia in 2016. McLaren found evidence that Russian athletes participating in more than 30 sports in the Summer and Winter Olympics benefited as Russian sports officials covered up positive tests that could've resulted in suspensions.
Given the level of the Russians' cheating, Nauright said he wasn't surprised that the ban was issued. But he doesn't know if the International Olympic Committee was right to hand it out.
"The evidence that we have goes up to 2015. They closed the RUSADA lab, the Russian Anti-Doping [Agency] lab, as a result of the initial allegations of what was happening in the lead-up to the London Summer Olympics and Sochi Winter Olympics," Nauright says. "So what [the Russians] did was that they closed that lab and moved the lab to the Moscow state university. That new lab opened in March 2017. It seemed as if the Russians were taking steps to address the original reports in terms of the current setup."
A retroactive ban, Nauright says, punishes athletes who had no involvement in state-sponsored doping simply because they happen to be Russian.
"If there's not any new evidence [of doping], it seems like punishing the present for the actions of the past ... it penalizes current athletes," Nauright says. "One of the things I like about the current decision is that it did actually identify officials that they believed were responsible and punish those officials. Whether Mutko or anybody else is actually guilty is a separate question ... but my problem with a lot of WADA and IOC decision-making is that often it's gone after the athletes instead of the officials and the coaches who develop these [doping] processes."
He says athletes in Olympic sports are especially vulnerable because they are frequently younger than athletes in other sports.
"If a coach tells you as a 16-, 17-, 18-year-old athlete, 'This is what you do; this is what you take,' you're not in a position to question the coach because another athlete might do it, and then they take your place in the team."
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The only way to ensure that Olympic athletes are competing on a level playing field, Nauright says, is creating a permanent, United Nations-like facility for elite athletes to train under common staff toward common goals.
"As long as we run sports on the basis of nations winning medals, you're never going to see significant change," he says. "My suggestion of a permanent training site for world elite athletes, an Olympic United Nations of sport facility, would achieve more of the aims of the Olympic movement, the goals of WADA, and protect both profits and perceptions of integrity."
All of the big countries on the Olympic stage — the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain and Germany, among others — have sports scientists working to figure out how far they can push athletes' nutrition and medical regimens without breaking the letter of WADA law, Nauright says, and Russia simply went too far over the line to avoid getting punished.
"I think that [the IOC] is attempting to at least show the veneer of fairness here, but the question is, are they kinda being pushed and compelled by certain forces here to say, 'We're going to punish what you did because we're not 100 percent convinced that you won't do it again.' I think that's were it's coming from, " Nauright says. "I think there's a mistrust, and I think the Russians are correct when they say they're being penalized by this mistrust. ... I think that they've changed their anti-doping situation. With the lab being inside one of the leading universities in the world, that independence seems to be there, but they need time to demonstrate that."