Hockey Headlines

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

What To Do With Russia?

The recent revelations made by WADA and lawyer Richard McLaren about Russia's systemic doping problem have shook several sports and their governing bodies to their cores. From 2011 until 2015, it seems that the Russians had a very elaborate and secretive doping plan in place for athletes across every sports discipline until whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov stepped forward and pulled the curtain back on the entire debacle. There is increased concern over results form every major sports event that was held in Russia in that time, and there's a cuse for concern about the entire Sochi Olympic Games and the results seen there. With the Rio Olympic Games bearing down on the IOC and the world, the push from the athletic community outside of Russia is to ban the whole Russian team. As wise as that question may be when it comes to fair play and competitiveness, I think the bigger question is what does the IOC and the world do with Russia as a whole?

I'll link WADA's report, prepared by Mr. McLaren, right here for those that want to navigate it. It's a 103-page document that is exhaustive in its reporting, but there are snippets worth checking out. If you have the time and want to learn how to read proper legalese, here's your link.

The first time I had read in-depth of system-wide doping happening in Russia was a John Brant article in The New York Times Magazine that exposed the lives of Russian track star Yuliya Stepanova and her husband, Vitaly Stepanov, on June 22, 2016. It was five days previous to that article's publishing when the news broke that the IAAF had banned the Russian track-and-field from competing in Rio due to a massive doping scandal. It's in Mr. Brant's article, however, that you learn that this doping procedure was in place as far back as 2009 and, perhaps, even earlier based on his statements.

When you think that it could have been happening as early as 2008, possibly in Beijing for that Olympiad, there are a lot of athletes who were fighting an unwinnable battle for medals they were not medically-enhanced enough to win. That's not to say that some didn't overcome the odds and beat out the Russians who may have been cheating at the time, but there's at least seven years worth of doping that the Russian had been practicing - perfecting? - prior to WADA's findings and Rodchenkov's admissions of cheating.

In that time, there were two Winter Olympiads that the Russians sent hockey players to, and multiple international events that had them achieve some form of credible success. Richard McLaren has stated, "the system was set up following the 2010 Winter Olympics, and was in place until 2014" in his report and in interviews, so it seems like the worst of the systemic doping procedure was applied to the vast majority of Russian sports after the Vancouver Olympiad.

That makes sense when you consider the boasting that Vladimir Putin did prior to the 2014 Sochi Olympics about how Russian athletes would restore pride to Russia with many gold medal performances. Russia did indeed do exactly as he predicted: they won the most gold medals with 13, and had the highest medal count of all the countries with 33. Norway (11) and Canada (10) were the only other countries to hit double-digits in gold medals after all was said and done, and the national pride that Putin spoke about before the Olympics was delivered just as he promised.

How did this happen? According to McLaren's report on page 10,
"The Disappearing Positive Methodology was used as a State directed method following the very abysmal medal count by the Russian Olympic athletes participating in the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver. At that time, Sochi had already been designated as the next Winter Olympic venue."
Just as I stated above, the systemic doping procedures were put in place in order for Putin to make good on his boasts of national pride being restored. There is enough evidence in McLaren's report that points to this being a directive that would have had to come from offices much higher than the individual sports' authorities themselves.

How does this relate to hockey? According to the chart found on page 41 of McLaren's report, there were a minimum of 14 positive doping test results that disappeared. I say "a minimum" because Mr. McLaren was not able to have access to all of Russia's records, so he only had a chance to record these 14 cases in the sport of ice hockey. There certainly could be more, but 14 is a definite number of players who were doping at the ice hockey event in Sochi.

Let's assume that the NHL players in Sochi were following guidelines as set out by the IOC and the NHL to be able to be included in the event. That would leave nine Russian men who played in the KHL for the 2013-14 season. I'll also note that all 21 Russian women were playing in the Russian women's league during the 2013-14 season including CIS stars Iya Gavrilova and Sasha Vafina as well as NWHL player Yekaterina Smolentseva. In total, there are 30 players who played the 2013-14 season of hockey in Russia who could have been part of this doping scandal, and it appears that nearly 50% of them were.

It probably didn't help Putin's cause when the men lost to Finland 3-1 in the quarterfinals, and there was certainly some finger-pointing at the time of the loss when it came to blame. The Russian women fared no better either, finishing with a 2-0 loss in the quarterfinals to Switzerland. At least in the case of the women, they knew it would take a miracle to capture anything more than a bronze medal.

When you look at the numbers, though, it would make sense to say that either three or four men and ten or eleven were caught doping if the numbers are true, and I'm using the 14 definite cases that disappeared as the magic number. We need to drill down further to see if there might be some players who can still be counted out of the positive results because there are players who had left North America for the KHL without being in the system since 2010.

The nine Russian men's players include defenceman Ilya Nikulin, forwards Viktor Tikhonov, Alexander Svitov, Alexander Popov, Alexei Tereshchenko, Alexander Radulov, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Yevgeny Medvedev, and goaltender Alexander Yeryomenko. It seems too obvious to lump the superstars into the doping group, but it would be irresponsible not to include them. While we might never know the answers as to who were the guilty parties from these nine men, only one of these men played less than a year in Russia prior to the Sochi Olympics - Ilya Kovalchuk. That would make him an unlikely candidate in the scandal.

No, it seems like this doping scheme was built on long-term doping methods. Maria Sharapova had admitted to taking mildronate, also known as meldonium, since 2006, but tested twice for the drug in two separate tests in January and February 2016, prompting the ITF to hand down its two-year suspension to the tennis star. Meldonium was added to the banned substance list on January 1, meaning that the Russians had been ahead of the doping game for some time.

Following that news, the entire Russian U18 team that was suspended for testing positive for meldonium in April, preventing them from competing at the IIHF Under-18 World Championships in Grand Forks, North Dakota. The availability of meldonium in Russia makes it sound as if it's widely available like aspirin or ibuprofen. Patrick Reevell and Christopher Clarey of The New York Times reported,
For decades meldonium was given openly to Russian athletes, along with vitamin supplements, and many trainers have complained about the ban while asserting that they would comply with it. Sold as Mildronate, meldonium is not approved for sale in the United States or the European Union but is sold over the counter in Russia and some Eastern European countries. A study by a Russian anti-doping center found that more than 700 Russian athletes were on meldonium last year before the ban, according to the Russian newspaper RBK.
It was reported that Sharapova had been using meldomium for approximately ten years to battle a number of medical ailments, and there's belief that the science and investigation into meldonium finally caught up to a number of these Russian athletes who had been using the drug for a variety of reasons. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, meldonium "demonstrates an increase in endurance performance of athletes, improved rehabilitation after exercise, protection against stress, and enhanced activations of central nervous system (CNS) functions". Yeah, that definition sounds exactly like cheating, doesn't it?

Look, I can't tell you what the exact right answer is for Rio or for any other event going forward other than double-blind testing where the same samples are tested by independent WADA-certified labs without knowing the results from the same sample in the other lab. This will drive up costs and certainly delay results depending on where those labs are located, but it seems to be the only way to ensure that samples can be verified as clean with respect to drug-testing. Maybe that's what has to happen until better testing solutions can be found, but it seems like ensuring the tests to a laboratory in a somewhat morally-compromised country will only result in better methods of cheating.

I'll tell you this, though: it didn't help the Russians on the ice. And maybe that's the one intangible that can't be cheated: when the talent level is identical or close to being identical, hard work and teamwork will always overcome an individual's cheating in a team sport.

As for the Russian track-and-field team not competing in Rio and the possibility all Russians will be banned? Well, you made your bed. Enjoy lying in it, you dopes.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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