Russia’s Doping Scandal and the 2018 World Cup

Russia’s Doping Scandal and the 2018 World Cup

Manuel Veth –

The World Cup in Russia has come under new pressure after Russian officials told the New York Times that they no longer dispute doping operations at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The acting director general of Russia’s national anti-doping agency admitted that Russia’s doping scheme was “an institutional conspiracy”, but that top government officials were not involved. Lab directors, with the help of the Federal Security Service (FSB), which is a direct successor of the KGB, would swap contaminated urine samples with clean urine samples in order to ensure that Russian athletes would not fail doping tests.

The scheme was later discovered after a whistle-blower, Grigory Rodchenkov, who had worked at the lab, had told western media about the elaborate schemes that were in place to ensure that Russian athletes would not fail doping tests. His revelation in turn prompted an investigation by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

 The McLaren Report uncovered the full extent of the doping scheme

Led by Richard McLaren, the WADA report published extensive evidence that prompted the International Olympic Committee to open disciplinary proceedings against 28 Russian athletes.

As a result, Russian officials have handed back the hosting rights for the end of the season cross-country skiing World Cup finals, and the biathlon World Cup event, which were both supposed to take place in Tyumen.

“The findings in the McLaren Report have seriously damaged the integrity of sport and we are determined to ensure the necessary measures are undertaken to punish the offences,” FIS President Gian Franco Kasper told the media.

Facing the possibility of athlete boycotts, the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Association, earlier in December, took away Russia’s right to host bobsled and skeleton events that were supposed to take place in Sochi in February.

Tuesday’s admission of widespread doping by Russia’s national anti-doping organization could, therefore, be understood, as a response to increasing international pressure by international sport federations.

 Russia and Doping – A Game of Diversion

It is also a move to divert blame away from high-ranking sport officials such as the former Minister of Sport, turned Deputy Prime Minister, and current President of the Russian Football Union, Vitaly Mutko. Mutko was recently promoted away from the position of Sport Minister to Deputy Prime Minister following the fallout of Russia’s doping scandal, and Russia’s disastrous campaign at the 2016 European Championships in France—where Mutko has to take blame for events that took place both on and off the field.

Vitaly Mutko (l.) was instrumental in bringing the World Cup to Russia - Image by doping

Vitaly Mutko (l.) was instrumental in bringing the World Cup to Russia – Image by

His promotion, however, does not mean that Mutko is no longer an influential decision maker in Russian sport. He remains the President of the Russian Football Union, and Mutko’s successor at the Ministry of Sport, Pavel Kolobkov, answers directly to him.

Kolobkov, a former épée fencer, who has won 26 medals at the Olympic Games, and at the World and European Championships, served as Russia’s representative to WADA. Kolobkov consistently denied Russia’s doping schemes and, therefore, lost his position as representative to the organization in January 2016.

In the meantime, however, Russia now claims that they are making great strides towards drying the doping swamp in their country. The country has appointed the 81-year-old Vitaly Smirnov, a sport official whose career dates back to the Soviet Union when he was first elected First Vice-Minister of Sport in 1970. Smirnov has also been a member of the Executive Board of the IOC on two occasions (between 1974 and 1978, and 1986 and 1990) and also served as vice-president of the IOC (between 1978 and 82, 1990 to 1994, and 2001 to 2005).

Upon his appointment, Smirnov announced, “From my point of view, as a former minister of sport, and as president of the Olympic committee—we made a lot of mistakes.” At the same time he also denied that the state was directly involved, and claimed that only individual actors were involved.

Russia is going the Soviet route

In many ways it is telling that the Russian Federation has gone the Soviet route by appointing an official who, for lack of a better term has to be considered a Soviet apparatchik. Smirnov will be well versed in the Cold War politics of diversion, and blame shifting.

In fact, in many ways, the recent approach of to admit to doping could be considered damage control. The involvement of the FSB leaves no doubt that the state was involved in the doping scheme in one capacity or another. doping

In many ways, the doping scandal reveals one of the biggest weaknesses of Putin’s Russia today, which is the fact that, much like the Soviet Union, the state is at the centre of every decision making process, including in sport. Doping in general has become a far-reaching problem in the Olympic movement, and Russian athletes are not the only ones that dope.

The centralization, by the government, of Russian sport, and of Soviet sport before that, meant that a single doping scheme would affect the vast majority of the athletes in the country. In terms of the anti-doping movement it also means that once exposed, Russian athletes involved were much easier to identify, as they are all run through the same centralized organizations.

Russian Centralization meant that it was easier to uncover the doping scandal

The involvement of state actors makes this particular case in many ways different to doping schemes that were for example exposed in the United States in the early 2000s. The Balco scandal in which several athletes, including track star Marion Jones, who trained with track coach Trevor Graham were found guilty of using banned substances such as anabolic steroids, human growth hormones, and the blood-boosting EPO.

Cases such as the Balco scandal, or the two Tour de France doping scandals, in which several athletes were involved, are, however, rare in doping scandals that involve athletes from the United States or Western European countries. Centralized state sponsorship is rare in most countries and, instead, athletes are dependent on national training centres, private coaches, sport clubs, or universities for training.

This explanation does not take away from the severity of the Russian doping scandal. And the fact that weaknesses in the Russian system exposed wide spread doping, does not take away from the fact that there was, or is, institutionalized doping in Russia’s sport program.

Furthermore, the centralization of Russian sport also leads to the question on how to proceed with other sporting events that are supposed to take place in the Russian Federation.

 How will the doping scandal impact Russia’s World Cup?

Already next summer, Russia will officially kick-off World Cup proceedings by staging the 2017 Confederations Cup. The 2018 World Cup has already come under enormous pressure before the doping scandal, as the country has been accused of paying bribes in order to be awarded the tournament. Russia also has been criticized for its military involvement in Ukraine and Syria, and its alleged tampering in the elections in the United States.

In many ways, the recent scandals will be water for the mills of those who want to punish the country by taking the tournament away from Russia—although we previously argued that if the world truly wanted to punish Russia it would be better to leave the tournament there.

Now, however, it appears that Russia’s football is not without doping suspicions either. The McLaren report uncovered five suspicious samples of Russia’s men’s U-17, which won the U-17 European Championships in 2013, and U-21 team in 2013, and 2014. Furthermore, Mutko has been accused of covering up a doping case in the Russian Football Premier League.

Russia, however, seems to have maintained its influence at the world football governing body FIFA—Mutko is a member of the influential FIFA Council. FIFA president Gianni Infantino told the media: “He [Mutko] is a council member and of course we are working together.”

Gianni Infantino (l.) does not think that the doping scandal will have an impact on Russia hosting the tournament - Image by Piotr Drabik CC-BY-2.0

Gianni Infantino (l.) does not think that the doping scandal will have an impact on Russia hosting the tournament – Image by Piotr Drabik CC-BY-2.0

Asked about possible sanctions Infantino replied: “If anything has happened with regard to doping cases in football which were covered up and which now are unveiled, then both FIFA as well as UEFA, depending on what the evidence is for these particular cases, will be dealing with them and we will take the necessary actions and sanctions.”

 Football seems to be above doping

Now, in many ways, this could be bad news in terms of hosting the World Cup in the Russian Federation. But on second glance, even an uncovered doping case would probably not result in Russia losing the World Cup.

Football has always been suspiciously clean of doping. The few prominent cases of doping usually involve substances that, although illegal, do not fall in the sport enhancement category. The most recent examples include CSKA Moscow midfielder Roman Eremenko, who failed a doping case after taking cocaine (for more on this check out Episode 3 of the Futbolgrad Podcast).

Furthermore, FIFA and UEFA, do not believe in collective punishments when it comes to doping. In 2009, for example, two CSKA Moscow players, Sergei Ignashevich and Aleksei Berezutsky, failed a doping test following CSKA’s 3-3 Champions League group stage match against Manchester United.

CSKA Moscow were not suspended from the competition, however, as article 21 of the disciplinary regulation stated that more than two players were required to fail a doping test in order for the threat of disqualification to be considered. “If more than two players from the same team is charged with a doping offence in relation to a prohibited substance or methods, the team in question may be disqualified from the competition in progress and/or future competitions.”

Aleksey Berezutsky failed a doping test after a Champions League group stage match against Manchester United in 2009 - Image by Ekaterina Laut CC-BY-SA-3.0

Aleksey Berezutsky failed a doping test after a Champions League group stage match against Manchester United in 2009 – Image by Ekaterina Laut CC-BY-SA-3.0

Conveniently UEFA, however, never tests more than two players from any given team, which makes collective punishment almost impossible. It is, therefore, not surprising that Infantino appears to be reluctant to broach the topic of taking the World Cup away from Russia, as a result of the doping scandal.

 Infantino does not want to mix the issue of doping with the World Cup

“I don’t think we should mix up a doping issue, even if it is a big doping issue, with the organization for the World Cup which is a completely different thing where it comes to anti-doping in the World Cup. This is a FIFA matter. It will be dealt with by FIFA officials in world accredited laboratories … very probably in Switzerland.” Infantino further stated: “We will guarantee that the World Cup in Russia will be completely safe when it comes to anti-doping matters, or when it comes to doping cases.”

With the World Cup seemingly safe in Russia, the question has to be asked regarding what kind of sanctions Russia could expect if there are indeed doping cases in Russian football. The most likely scenario will be that the individual players, and the officials involved will be banned. At the same time, however, high-ranking sport officials, such as Mutko, seem to be able to weather the storm.

With all this in mind, the important question remains, whether FIFA should keep the tournament in Russia—this is more of a philosophical question at this point, as there is no way the tournament will be moved this late in the game. Sport sanctions have, in the past, done very little to bring about political change. In fact, millions of tourists traveling to Russia will likely have a more positive impact on Russia’s political outlook to the west, than would having the tournament being taken away from them by the west.

At the same time, the recent decisions to take away sporting events seems to have put enough pressure on Russia to change the nation’s policy on how to approach the doping scandal. In many ways, Russian officials admitting to widespread state doping could even be seen as a way to ensure that the World Cup remains in Russia.

Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist,  writer for, and podcaster for He is also a holder of a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”, which will be available in print soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada.  Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus.