The sufferings of the crown witnesses

Photo: Erik Van Leeuwen/Wikimedia

Yuliya Stepanova (then Rusanova) competing at the 2012 IAAF World Indoor Championships in Istanbul. Photo: Erik van Leeuwen/Wikimedia

Yuliya Stepanova and Alex Schwazer revealed doping practices in Russia and Italy. Sports writer Johannes Aumüller and sports editor Thomas Kistner from Süddeutsche Zeitung ask if this is why the two athletes now have to worry about their start at the Olympic Games.

There are a couple of thousand flight kilometers between Bolzano and the US West coast, but those who care about the anti-fight and the strange attitude of organized sport towards it, should connect these two places. Bolzano has for many years been the home of Italian top race walker Alex Schwazer, and on the US West coast, the middle-distance runner Yuliya Stepanova has lived since her escape from Russia. Both of them are track and field athletes, both of them have earlier tested positive for doping – and afterwards, both of them have made a valuable contribution to the fight against doping. Stepanova’s statements and evidence provided the impetus for an investigation revealing a state-run doping system in Russia. Schwazer reported to the authorities about the knowledge and involvement in doping of the National Athletic Association and beyond.

Both of them wanted to participate in the Rio Games – and both of them will now fear that this will not happen. Stepanova is impeded by the sports political manoeuvres in the International Olympic Committee (IOC) led by Thomas Bach. And Schwazer has tested positive again – in a diffuse case.

IOC shuns the permission for Stepanova
On Tuesday 21 June, the IOC President, Bach, once again emphasised after a meeting with selected officials of the Olympic world how serious it is with the fight against doping. However, what he brought forward was rather evidence of the opposite. He complied with the interests of the chronically infected Russian system. To a large extent he ignored that in mid-July, an expert group commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and led by Canadian Richard McLaren will submit a further report which may draw an even sharper image of the doping swamp. He also managed to strike another blow at the crown witness Stepanova’s hopes to start at the Olympics.

According to the decision of the International Athletics Federation (IAAF), Stepanova and other Russian athletes who have moved away from the dilapidated test system in Russia could apply for participation in Rio despite the suspension of the national athletics federation from the Olympics - under the neutral Olympic flag. Bach’s gathering corrected this suggestion. The Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) is not suspended; therefore, all the claimants must participate under the Russian flag.

This is extremely unfortunate from Stepanova’s perspective. Firstly, she would have to compete in the name of the country whose doping practices she has revealed – and that still regards her as a traitor. Furthermore, she would need a nomination through the ROC. And its chief, Alexander Zhukov, an old trustee of the head of state Vladimir Putin and equipped with an important position in Bach’s IOC, made it clear that this would not happen. Thus, only the IOC itself can allow Stepanova’s start. To the question whether it would ensure this, there was no clear answer.

The answer of the IOC sounds evasive
This question has not yet arisen, said Bach. If the IAAF brings this question up officially, it would be examined. That sounds like an excuse and it could lead to a strange situation. For good reason, the IOC allows refugees who left their country because of war or economic situation to participate under the Olympic flag. On the other hand, there is no clear statement about the political refugee Stepanova who fled Moscow in fear of reprisals.

However, Stepanova might participate at the European Athletics Championship in Amsterdam (6-10 July), where her comeback on the international stage would be possible under a neutral flag; the IAAF has confirmed to the “Sportinformationsdienst” that they have requested a permission for her to compete in the continental championship. An IAAF doping panel should decide about that “as soon as possible”.

Equally exciting is the recent positive test of the Italian crown witness Alex Schwazer. In 2008 in Peking, the race walker won Olympic Gold in the 50km race; four years later, he traveled to London as a favorite and was caught just before the start for the blood doping classic EPO. His sports ban lasted nearly four years; furthermore, he was handed an eight-month suspended sentence by the Italian judiciary. But Schwazer wanted to return to the international stage and to secure his return, he teamed up with no less than Alessandro Donati.

Critical minds are strangely caught 
The Italian coach and scientist is one of the world's leading doping fighters: He gained worldwide recognition when he uncovered massive fraud in the Italian sports confederation Coni and the doping laboratory in Rome – and the ban on Schwazer came on his initiative. Thus, he puts a very big reputation at stake. At the expense of the athlete, Donati set up an extensive monitoring, including round-the-clock availability for tests and additional blood tests. And now, despite all this, a positive result on anabolic steroids?

The case is very strange. A training control from 1 January should initially have turned out negative - as were more than a dozen other checks that year. Hardly had Schwazer qualified for Rio before a second analysis of his blood and urine sample from the beginning of the year was carried out. And this is where the anabolic steroids were detected. "It's a nightmare, I have nothing to reproach myself," Schwazer said at a news conference on Wednesday 22 June. His lawyer stated: "It may be either sabotage or an error."

When caught, doping offenders have already presented the world with many excuses, but in this case questions are not only directed at Schwazer and Donati. For it is striking how the system in strange ways manages to catch exactly the critical spirits and key witnesses. In the 1990’ies, 5000-meter Olympic champion Dieter Baumann continuously denounced how the German track and field federation and many fellow runners were associated with former GDR doping coaches.

Other oddities with professional cyclist Sinkewitz
Baumann even argued before the European Parliament and the German Ministry of Interior. Soon after, repeated traces of nandrolone were found in his samples. According to the findings of the only lawyers who dealt specifically with this case and the criminal investigations, Baumann’s positive tests were the result of an attack by which the substance had been mixed into his toothpaste.

Go back a couple of years more and Patrik Sinkewitz spoke out massively about doping practices in cycling. Then he first could no longer find a racing team, and as soon as he was back in the saddle, he was the first and only cyclist who tested positive for the growth hormone HGH. It was a peculiar case: Sinkewitz 'sample came from a completely insignificant race, and in the proceedings before the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), there were numerous peculiarities (see SZ from 09.05.2015). And now, the key witness Schwazer and the doping fighter Donati who of course have many enemies in the sport because of their deeds?

With the cynicism that emerges from such cases, it should perhaps come as no surprise if doping whistleblower Yuliya Stepanova would soon test positive – if, after all, she does make it to Rio.

This comment first appeared in Süddeutsche Zeitung on 23 June 2016 (in German) and is translated and republished on with kind permission from the authors.


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