Column: Russia is athletics' Lance Armstrong case

What should be a cherished, career-best memory for Netherlands runner Yvonne Hak - winning a silver medal at the 2010 European Championships - now just feels ''strange and frustrating.''

That's because of the expose broadcast on German television this week that appears to have blown a lid off systematic doping and corruption in Russian sports. The ARD documentary, largely based on testimony from Russian whistleblowers and seemingly meticulously researched, included blurry images of a woman saying on hidden camera that she takes the banned steroid oxandrolone, that coaches ''cover up the tests'' and ''my husband has very good contacts to the doping control laboratory.''

ARD identified the woman as reigning Olympic 800-meter champion Maria Savinova - the same runner who beat Hak in 2010.

Yet, in a telephone interview, there is barely a note of surprise in Hak's soft and even voice. Athletes long harbored misgivings about ''shady'' Russian competitors and their ''really closed world,'' she said.

''We all knew it,'' she said. ''All athletes talked about it.''

If even half of what ARD alleged is true, then this is a Lance Armstrong moment, potentially make-or-break, for Russian sports and for the wider sports world's anti-doping system built up over 15 years to try to keep it clean and credible.

Just as rampant drug use and lying in the Armstrong era destroyed the credibility of cycling, ARD's claims of widespread doping in an array of Russian sports, of anti-doping officials paid to look the other way and of the extortion of a three-time Chicago Marathon winner to hush up a positive test could poison everything the 2018 host of the football World Cup does in sport for years to come. Russia's previous successes, including topping the medals tables at the 2014 Winter Olympics it hosted in Sochi, would be tarnished by association, too.

Even back in 2010, people involved in her sport were telling Hak it was surely only a matter of time before Russia would be unmasked and justice done, she recalled.

''Lots of people told me like: `Ah, you got second behind the Russian girl, so, well, you'll probably get the gold medal, after all, in a while,'' Hak said.

''That is just how people think about Russian athletics in general, I think.''

To stop that, Russia must do what the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency did with Armstrong: impress the world with action. In nailing Armstrong for what it called the ''most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen,'' USADA helped restore trust in a policing system which the cyclist, his accomplices and teammates had made a mockery of. The single-minded thoroughness of USADA's investigation and its life-time ban from sports for Armstrong showed that even someone who rubbed shoulders with ex-U.S. presidents isn't too big to fall. Likewise, Russia must now demonstrate not only the will to punish everyone exposed by ARD but also to take a broom to the corruption and opaque system they appear to have been exploiting.

But these things take time. Arms will need twisting. Whistleblowers will need to be carefully questioned and, if necessary, protected. Some of the initial, skeptical and dismissive reaction coming out of Russia to ARD's accusations was discouraging. But the Russian Anti-Doping Agency did then announce Friday the launch of an investigation. A bit of patience will provide a better yardstick of whether that is a genuine search for the truth or a whitewash, and whether the World Anti-Doping Agency and the governing body of athletics, the IAAF, actually have leverage in Moscow.

''If these allegations are true and they are left unanswered, so to speak, I would say we are, as a sport, in danger of moral bankruptcy,'' Jakob Larsen, director general of Denmark's athletics federation, said in a phone interview.

''This is a defining moment.''

It shouldn't be forgotten that before this scandal, outside experts who have been working with Russia to improve its anti-doping controls and agency, RUSADA, were saying it has made great strides. This followed a very dark period of one Russian doping disgrace after another and a tongue-lashing from Jacques Rogge, then head of the International Olympic Committee.

Even now, former IOC medical director Patrick Schamasch maintains RUSADA ''has made enormous progress.''

The Moscow anti-doping laboratory ''remains the weak link in the chain'' and ''must be monitored very, very carefully and be restructured,'' he said in a telephone interview. But Schamasch expects Russia to cooperate with IAAF and WADA investigative efforts because its reputation is at stake.

''If I was in RUSADA's shoes, I would want the World Anti-Doping Agency to be over here on a plane straight away, and able to show them all the audit trails that we have and all the scrutiny that we have, to put these allegations to bed,'' Andy Parkinson, the chief executive of UK Anti-Doping, the British agency, said in a separate interview.

''It is going to take time,'' he added.

For Hak, it's too late.

Even if investigators confirm it is Savinova talking in the ARD report about steroid use, Hak knows that cannot change their race in 2010. The photo Hak posted on Twitter this week will always show her finishing second behind the Russian, not winning gold.

''It's about the moment, of course, and they took that way from me,'' she said. ''I cannot get it back.''

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester

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