Russian sports minister: Global sports decision-makers pressured by media’s anti-Russian bias

The world of sports is shaken by one doping scandal after another as dozens of Russian and international athletes are testing positive for meldonium - a drug banned recently by the World’s anti-doping agency. The decision to prohibit meldonium was unexpected and, as many say, not particularly fair. What makes an athlete take a drug? How do scientists decide which ones to ban? How much politics is there in the decisions of anti-doping agencies in international sport? We ask Russia’s Sports Minister about that. Vitaly Mutko is on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Mr Mutko, we’re very happy to have you on the show today, you’re a long-awaited guest for us. There are so many things to discuss. There’s the huge scandal surrounding Russian athletes taking a recently prohibited drug called meldonium. One of the most famous Russian sport stars, Maria Sharapova, failed her drug test. She said that because meldonium was banned starting from January 1st, she didn’t even know about it, and it was very hard to find this information. So who’s at fault here? Is it WADA’s job to inform the athletes about prohibited substances, or does the responsibility lie solely with the athletes?  

Vitaly Mutko: I can tell you that looking for the party responsible is something that always happens. We have to keep in mind that WADA has no obligations to anyone in this case; it’s an independent anti-doping agency that makes decisions and publishes a Prohibited List every year. After that it’s the job of national anti-doping organizations - in Russia that’s RUSADA – to inform the athletes. And, frankly speaking, it’s the athlete’s own job and responsibility. No one has any obligations to professional athletes.

Unfortunately, athletes are the most disadvantaged ones when it comes to rights. They have to deal with doping control, numerous regulations and an endless number of requirements. The athletes are strangled by these requirements and obligations. We have to admit that international sports federations make money on athletes, it’s their effort that brings enormous income to international sports organizations. But nowadays, it’s the athletes who are the most vulnerable. So I would say that no one is to blame here, as everything was done according to the existing rules and regulations. On September 29th, WADA announced the drugs to be banned, including meldonium, then the gears started turning - all countries, sports federations and health services were informed of this. All doctors and athletes were informed of this.

As for Maria, well, I guess her mailbox is always full, so this information somehow got lost. You could cut this out, of course, she should create a separate mailbox for such things. Regulations, schedules and anti-doping rules are all things that an athlete, unfortunately, must always keep close at hand. Or, as is the case with a team as professional as Maria’s, there’s a special person that continuously monitors the changes.

SS: Okay, let’s leave Maria Sharapova’s case, I understand it was her personal responsibility.

VM: The issue of it being her responsibility aside, ignorance of the law is no excuse. It’s not a valid argument.

SS: Okay. But you said the doctors were informed as well.

VM: Yes, everyone was, doctors included.

SS: So why didn’t the doctors stop the athletes from taking a prohibited substance?

VM:  After January 1st, this drug was withdrawn from the market, and doctors certainly didn’t prescribe it or supply it to anyone any longer. That is an absolute fact. The drug was removed from the training premises of our national teams. But there is a separate issue, namely that WADA was very quick to include this drug in the list of prohibited substances. That was a rather hurried decision: usually it takes serious scientific research and multiple tests before a drug gets blacklisted.

I wouldn’t like us to point fingers at athletes and their doctors as culprits right away. We should bear in mind that athletes from different countries testing positive for doping is a highly sensitive issue, one that tarnishes elite sports as such. We would do better to take our time and look at what’s wrong with this particular drug, why it has been included in the Prohibited List, and whether that decision was justified in the first place. You see, a drug has to meet three criteria to be included in the Prohibited List. A, it must boost an athlete’s performance. Does this drug do that?

SS: I’ve read that it doesn’t.

VM: I don’t have any test results on hand. B, the drug has to have an adverse effect on health.

SS: I’ve read that it doesn’t.

VM: Again, I haven’t seen any test results. And C, it has to be contrary to the spirit of sport. A substance is prohibited if it falls under any two criteria out of those three. Many national sports federations, including those from Russia and the Russian Sports Ministry have requested WADA to state its reasons for including meldonium on the Prohibited List.

SS: Have they responded?

VM: So far they haven’t.

SS: So there is no official evidence to say that meldonium is actually a form of doping.

VM: Here is how they single out suspicious drugs. Through regular monitoring, they find out that, say, many Russian athletes take this drug – some 30 or 40 percent of the national team take it following prescription by their doctors. By the way, in Russia meldonium is on the list of essential medicines: it is a vital drug for strengthening the cardiac muscle, for post-traumatic recovery, etc.

SS: I’ve read about it, and understand that it’s been prescribed to athletes in the past.

VM: Doctors actually used to prescribe it as a course for people recovering after injuries. Maria Sharapova, for one, had suffered a painful and lasting injury to the shoulder. It’s for cases like that that this drug is prescribed.

SS: This is worth mentioning for people who don’t know much about meldonium. I read an interview with the man who invented this drug, and it wasn’t originally intended for doping at all. The inventor said meldonium can’t make you stronger or faster, it merely helps your body handle stress, sometimes even prevent death.

VM: I absolutely agree. There have been many cases where an athlete would die following heavy physical stress during a skiing or skating competition. And meldonium helps strengthen the cardiac muscle and restore one’s health. But that’s beside the point. Rather than vent our emotions regarding this decision, we’d better think of what we can do in legal terms.

Some may seek to politicize this issue and say, “Look, the Russians have been taking it!” But in fact, we’ve never denied that. Athletes do need to take medicines for purposes of treatment and recovery. The number of authorized drugs tends to shrink steadily as dozens of substances get included in the Prohibited List. Besides, many of the athletes who now confess to having taken meldonium are saying the last time they took it was back in November or December. And they can’t understand how they could test positive in January or February, or March even. Any patient information leaflet on meldonium says it should be gone from the system within six hours. People who take this drug, as well as doctors who prescribe it, rely on those information leaflets, as there have been no other studies. We asked WADA whether they had done any research regarding meldonium’s residence time, and they said no, they haven’t. That means they also rely on that same patient information provided by the drug’s manufacturers.

SS: I read that it takes months for the substance to leave your body.

VM: Well, now that the entire world has realized we need to actually study this drug, we hear that even WADA is carrying out additional research, and several laboratories have been tasked with doing tests. We are also looking at that. Even early test results show meldonium’s minimum residency time is 21 days. But you need to realize that a study can take some three or four, or even six months. You have to select volunteers, let them take the drug, then monitor their condition over time, back up your observations with scientific analysis, and publish a report… What are we supposed to do in the meantime? Punish athletes for having taken a prescribed medicine before it was prohibited?

This situation doesn’t only concern Russia, it has worldwide implications. I would even say this is something of a test for the international world of sports. We need to carefully explain to the public why this drug has been blacklisted, how long it remains in the system, etc. Before we penalize an athlete, we must be absolutely sure that they deliberately, knowingly used a prohibited substance to cheat and get an upper hand. Otherwise we risk punishing an innocent person.

SS: So they might even remove meldonium from the Prohibited List?

VM: I don’t know, but there have been precedents in modern sports history. But that would require courage and the will not to politicize this case and try to pin it on Russia. It would require courage from WADA to disclose such information.

We can’t totally distrust athletes. Let me give you an example. Here is Pavel Kulizhnikov, world champion in speed skating, who had been leading throughout the season. He was competing in a two-day race at the World All-round Championship. They took his sample for a doping test on the 13th, and he tested negative. Then they took another sample the next day, and he tested positive, showing a micro amount of meldonium. But that doesn’t make sense: this athlete would have to be totally crazy to deliberately take a prohibited drug during a competition, while knowing perfectly well that, as a world champion heading for a new record, he would definitely be tested the next day. I just don’t believe it’s possible, we know him better than that. So how can it be that he tested negative on the 13th, and positive the next day? We can only speculate that it’s something to do with metabolism, that certain particles somehow got caught up in his system.

The Russian Federation pays $1 million in membership fees to WADA, and another $300,000 to finance doping-related research. The other member-states in the Council of Europe also pay that money. Now the Council of Europe and all of its 47 member-states are saying, “Let’s see those research results.” After all, we paid for it.

We are seeing that meldonium-related controversies keep arising, and this is likely to continue, all the way until June. If it’s true that meldonium can remain in the human body for up to 4 months, then any Russian athlete who took it last year may suddenly test positive up until June. At this rate, they might as well just bar the entire Russian national team from the Olympics in Rio.

SS: You stated repeatedly that it’s not a case of politics. Mr. Dvorkovich, our vice-premier, says it’s clearly a political case. This drug was detected in Swedes, Ethiopians, and Ukrainians... Why all the fuss just about the Russians?

VM: Well, it’s not only the Russian RUSADA lab that is suspended. There is another one, I won’t name it. There were problems in Sweden.

SS: But, honestly, from an international perspective it appears to be only Russian athletes…

VM: The common trend is there, public opinion, the pressure from the media, especially the British media, television, a German state –controlled channel is producing a series of stories on Russian sports. There is tremendous pressure on decision-makers in track-and-field events and the Russian anti-doping system. There is an impact, of course. If you hear about endless things about the Russians with your morning Sunday Times and your tea, there is an impact; it was intended that way.

And they all have objectives – destroying an achievement, removing a competitor, etc.More importantly, we must draw a very clear line again between the responsibilities of the states and the sports and public organizations. Russian sports have been open to international monitoring. There are about 3000 athletes in the Russian national teams and about 80% of those are under the total monitoring by international sports organizations, it’s the so-called international testing pool.

We are leaders in the sports world. We are among the winners and we are constantly checked. The control is done by international sports organizations, federations and WADA. The Olympic Games were held recently in Russia and they got the highest reviews. So what happened since then? If they grant accreditation to our national lab - RUSADA - in March 2015, and evaluate it highly, but then by October they said the whole system is wrong…

SS: Before the Sochi Games I talked to WADA Chief Sir Craig Reedie and he was very complimentary about RUSADA, he said they had very good experts and were doing well to seriously tackle doping… And now they suspend its accreditation. So what happened in the past 2 years? Our experts just lost their qualifications?

VM: It’s all about politics. I’m a minister. Our President requested me and other sports managers not to politicize this situation, but rather conscientiously and openly try to reconfigure the system. RUSADA’S rights have been partially suspended. We have signed a roadmap with WADA.We are restoring operations in a calm way. We have ceded the rights to operate in Russia to the British UKADA and they are planning the test taking in Russia now. They took 76 tests last month. I’m glad to tell you that by the end of the year the share of suspended athletes will be just the same as RUSADA’s. We used to take 15,000 tests and our system was number 2 in the world. Around 1 percent, or 200 to 300 athletes, were disqualified regardless of their rank.  

Right now the British UKADA is drafting a plan of its operations going forward, and, mind you, we pay for their services. So, like I said, they are going to have another 150 tests in the pipeline for March and some 200 for April. There are two organizations, one from Germany and the other from Sweden, that collect the test samples and take them to accredited labs in Cologne, Lausanne, Montreal.

As you can see, the Russian national team will demonstrate maximum transparency ahead of the Rio Olympics. I doubt that people who don’t like to see Russians win are going to have any other arguments. Anyway, the main achievements and victories of Russian athletes were reached thanks to clean performance, not doping. The credit goes to the enormous efforts of the athletes, coaches and the focus that the government has given to sports and the infrastructure that it’s created. This has been the recipe of our success.

So by the end of the year, following the Olympics, when the tension will subside and they will be no need to hold up the progress of the Russian team, the testing system will be fully operational once again.

SS: Fine. Let’s move on to Rio. The IAAF suspended the Russian federation as early as last November. Does it mean that our track and field athletes could miss the Games?

VM: I don’t have any doubts that they WILL go. The IAAF established an independent commission, introduced metrics that our federation has to comply with and we’ve been cooperating in a bona-fide manner with that commission.

We held elections to get a new head of the federation. We put together a pool of around 200 athletes that could go to Rio. We have taken up a commitment that before Rio they would pass at least three doping tests – no schedules have been given in advance. The tests will be done by Western anti-doping agencies.

Overall, we have complied with all the directives, including conducting probes into athletes which had been flagged. All those who were found guilty were suspended and punished. Our law enforcement agencies are in cooperation with their French counterparts who opened criminal proceeding regarding the former chief of the IAAF. The first report was presented by the commission on March 11. According to it, Russia has made a lot of progress but there is still a way to go.

SS: Why did the IAAF decide to disqualify all the athletes, including those who have not taken drugs?

VM: For now, it’s not in my interests to make an in-depth assessment of the situation at hand.

SS: How is that? You’re Russia’s sport’s minister, you can do it.

VM: I won’t do this because I want our national athletics team to participate in the Olympic Games. [Laughs] I realize that every word I say will be quoted. They are watching our responses closely. All I can tell you is this: the philosophy of global sports, international sports federations and WADA should focus on protecting conscientious athletes. Unfortunately, this principle has not worked in this case. Instead of punishing those individuals who had tested positive for doping and were disqualified, they penalized all the Russian athletes. Take our pole vaulter Lena Isinbayeva – it could be her fourth Olympics, and now her unblemished career is threatened because of this situation. Or take Masha Kuchina – she is just 20 years old and a recent High Jump world champion, her career is threatened from the outset. It’s wrong and unfair. I’ll tell you more.

I have explained to the IAAF leadership, who are in charge of track-and-field development, that it’s hard to think of a surer way to deal a crushing blow to the prestige of international athletics - leading to its total decline - than what was done. In a country like Russia track-and field sports are practiced by about one million people. If you pull Russian athletics out of international activities for a year, as a result financing is stemmed, athletes and coaches quit, members of the national team don’t get their pay and their competitiveness declines because they are removed from international athletic contests. It’s as if you had two sons, one of them a drug addict, and you don’t want to get him into rehab and choose to terminate your parental rights, but the son doesn’t cease to be a drug addict after your doing so. The Russian Athletic Federation is a member of the IAAF’s family, so they should help us if they think that something is wrong with the Russian federation, that it’s not sound, not matching certain criteria, just help us to improve. I’ve always said so. But still I think that we have reached a certain understanding. Russia’s federation, supported by the IAAF, is now making steps towards improving its work and putting it in compliance with the internationally adopted standards and requirements. It’s a public organization which is a member of another public organization. I hope that the decision to restore Russia’s status will be taken early in the summer, or even before that.

SS: How do you punish those athletes who put their colleagues at such risk, I mean the people who are making the entire national athletics team suffer?

VM: I’ll tell you one smart thing, as we say in Russia, you need to understand, and everyone in the world is aware of this too, that the only person in sports who cannot miss a punishment is the athlete. You need to understand this. The athlete will always be punished for taking drugs. Today’s disqualification rules provide for a minimum ban from participation in sports events, or, in fact, in the athlete’s professional activities, of 4 years, and in case of a recurrent offence the athlete is disqualified for life. The athlete will be punished in any case.

The problem lies elsewhere – we need to develop proper procedures for investigation and find those people who encourage athletes to take drugs, who convince them that they will get away with it, who offer them these drugs and organize the fraudulent schemes. In most cases it’s someone from the immediate entourage of the athlete – his coaches, doctors etc, those people who are supposed to support the athlete. And the athlete has no rights to this end, he will always be punished. Additionally, we can strip them of their titles, recall their awards and medals and prize money. So the athlete will be punished financially, too. But the worst punishment is when they take the athlete’s profession, his means of making money, his success and recognition. The athlete can’t miss a punishment, that’s true.

SS: Mr Mutko, all these doping scandals did not start yesterday. They have been there for as long as I can remember. But, frankly speaking, sports and doping always go together, you can’t help it. What do you think?

VM: You need to understand that in professional sports, athletes are exposed to huge physical pressure and stress. Besides some managers try to use athletes to make more money, and force them into sponsorship contracts. It’s hard for athletes to survive in such conditions. Remember, they are living on the brink of physical exhaustion, enduring impossible loads. And when someone is working like this all the time, he certainly needs to restore his powers. There are certain pharmaceuticals that can help, but, of course, you should opt for legitimate drugs.

Athletes are not always educated on this or well-informed and they may fall into a trap. One controlling system issues  lists of prohibited drugs. Other systems are not always consistent with that. It’s very hard to do anything in this area. It would be nice if various systems were coordinated and functioned fairly. When the WADA Commission chaired by Mr. Pound investigated the Russian case, they asked athletes what made them take drugs, and the most frequent answer was “mistrust of the system”. The athlete cannot be absolutely sure that others don’t take drugs.

And then there is the problem of inequality of conditions. In global sports there is the term “therapeutic use exemption”. Many national teams are made up of asthmatics, up to 80-100 percent of all athletes on the team. They take drugs for which those who don’t have permission can be disqualified. There are also one-time winners among athletes. I am talking about those who are not seen around, in-between Olympics, and they come out of nowhere, take an Olympic gold medal and then disappear. It’s suspicious.

When the Russian authorities are trying to put all these questions to our colleagues in international organizations, they are told to investigate on their own, find proof at their own expense, because we are not a member of this global family. There are numerous problems in global sports, including the issue of inadequate management. Doping is not an issue that is unique to Russia.

SS: Thank you so much for the interview.