Steve Magness evaluates the IAAF's decision to ban Russia's track and field team from the Rio 2016 Olympics, what will happen next in the case, what this means for the U.S. and more.
Russia’s track and field team will not be allowed to compete in the Rio Olympics, the International Association of Athletics Federations determined on Friday.
Russian athletes have been banned from international competition since a World Anti-Doping Agency independent commission report from November concluded that Russia was running a state-sponsored doping program in track and field.
Several athletes may still be able to compete independently at the Olympics if they made “an extraordinary contribution to the fight against doping.” That includes the case of Yulia Stepanova, who blew the whistle and revealed the Russian doping practices and regimen through recordings, emails and texts to the World Anti-Doping Agency. The IOC will consider her case.
SI caught up with Steve Magness, a prominent whistleblower in last summer's BBC and ProPublica report that alleged Nike Oregon Project head coach Alberto Salazar had pushed the boundaries on doping rules to gain a competitive advantage by encouraging the use of prescription medication and therapeutic use exemptions. Salazar has denied the allegations and is under investigation by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Magness is also the head cross-country coach at the University of Houston and several professional runners.
Chris Chavez: What are your immediate thoughts on the ruling? Is it a victory for clean sport?
Steve Magness: It's premature to call it a victory for clean sport. It's a step in the right direction, but one that if they didn't make, the IAAF would have been seen as a laughably inept organization. We don't know the behind-the-scenes dealings between Russia, the IAAF, WADA, and the IOC. So it will be interesting to see what transpires.
CC: Next up is the IOC. What are you hoping with its ruling?
SM: By the IAAF statement, it seems like they intentionally left some wiggle room for “clean” athletes. My guess is that the IOC exploits this wiggle room and sets up parameters for certain Russian athletes to compete, which I believe is a mistake. It's been demonstrated that we can't trust Russian Anti-Doping, even when the U.K. anti-doping has been brought in to assist them. Therefore, it will be impossible to determine whether an athlete is likely clean or not. Given the enormity of the issue, I think the IOC has to take the political hit and ensure that Russia is banned from the Olympics.
CC: How difficult do you think it would be if an athlete had to prove that they were not part of the Russian doping system? If you were the IAAF/IOC, what would you look for?
SM: It's impossible. And that's the major issue. If you are a clean athlete or team, which there likely are some, even in Russia, the dirty athletes drag you down with them. This is why it so important to eliminate systematic doping by either teams or nations. It doesn't just effect those athletes who are taking drugs or that they are competing against, it impacts every single athlete. And that's incredibly sad. If I'm a clean athlete in Russia, I'm not mad at the IAAF or IOC for banning our country, I'm furious at the other Russian athletes, coaches, and systems in place that allowed for doping to occur.
CC: Part of Russia’s counter-argument to being accused of doping was pointing out that there are also doping issues in the U.S., U.K. and Kenya. How bad do you think it is here in the U.S. and what's the difference?
SM: It's obviously not just a Russian problem. My hope is that this isn't simply thrown off as a Russia-only issue and we forget about the larger picture. That being said, I think the issue in Russia that isn't in the U.S. is that it was systematic, involving the anti-doping agencies and government. You don't see that in the U.S. Here, it's individuals, teams, or doctors who push the doping. In Kenya, I'm not sure—it could be systematic or it could be athlete, coach, or agent driven. We just don't know enough.
That being said, it's a major issue. Athletes are doping and governing bodies like the IAAF need to look out for clean athletes, not just the sport. For years, it seems like there has been a mentality that the IAAF is “protecting” the sport by not letting big name athletes fail, which has led us to the situation we are currently in.
CC: There was a little bit of a consolation for Stepanova. Is it enough?
SM: Not at all. The Stepanovas have risked their lives for this. If I'm the IAAF, now that their allegations have been proven true, I'm putting the Stepanovas in a major position aiding in the fight against doping. They deserve that.
CC: What more could be done for whistleblowers going forward?
SM: The first thing you need is a feeling of trust. After the Stepanova incident you had people like Lord Coe downplaying and almost disparaging what they had done. What message does that send except to keep your mouth shut? The ones who have the most information are the athletes, but if they don't feel they can trust the IAAF, which why would they given the corruption, or WADA, then you're not going to get whistleblowers. I've talked to pro athletes who have seen needles in bathrooms of diamond league meetings and other such shady things. But none of it ever gets reported because athletes either don't know where to, or don't know who to trust. It's a sad state of affairs.
CC: Aside from all the controversy surrounding him recently, did Seb Coe handle this right?
SM: In this situation, he had but one decision to make. If he did not uphold the ban of Russia, the IAAF would have been a laughing stock. So yes, in this situation, Seb did the right thing and went with the evidence. It was good to see.
CC: Does it do anything to help his image as the IAAF president?
SM: I think that depends on if Russia is actually banned from the Olympics. If the IOC comes back and overturns that or places loopholes to the ban, then I don't think it does. It rings hollow. If Coe uses this as a first step towards creating a much more robust and fair system for investigating athletes, countries, and so forth towards anti-doping, then yes, it can be a positive.
CC: Without Russia, what kind of Olympics do you expect to see? Does it mean more medals for the U.S.?
SM: It certainly does. There will still be controversy and many athletes competing dirty. But what it does do is give athletes some hope, especially in the women's events. It's like a breath of fresh air, which makes a clean athlete feel like they have a chance to make a final or grab a medal. Where before, you knew everything had to be absolutely perfect to have even a glimmer of hope. Now, that door of hope is very slowly cracking open.