Russian Sports Minister: People must own up to mistakes, but collective responsibility is wrong

The existence of a state-supported doping program in Russia is yet to be proven, but already there is talk of banning the whole Russian team from the 2018 Winter Olympics. Will there be a blanket ban, and what will that mean for anti-doping efforts in global sports? We ask Russian Sport Minister Pavel Kolobkov.

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Sophie Shevarnadze: Hi Mr. Kolobkov, thank you for coming today. Lots to talk about, let's start with the most actual. The anti-doping agencies of 17 countries, including US, Canada, Great Britain, sent a letter to the IOC asking to ban Team Russia from the Winter Olympics of 2018. Is there a chance our athletes won't go there, do I get this right? And what is being done to fix this situation - are you in direct contact with the IOC, with WADA?

Pavel Kolobkov: This is a multi-layered question. So, let me start with these 17 agencies you mentioned. There is this organization, INADO, which was created by 17 anti-doping agencies to help national anti-doping bodies with educational programs, establishing standards – like anything. So, by the statement you mentioned they clearly overstepped their mandate. It’s up to international and national sports federations and the IOC to oversee the development of sports. So, this is just their personal opinion. Accordingly, we don’t pay too much attention to that. I think they should mind their own business and stick to the things they are supposed to be doing.

SS: So there’s no real threat?

PK: There is no real threat. I can even tell you that after this statement WADA president Craig Reedie commented on the situation, saying that those people really overstepped their mandate. As far as Pyeongchang is concerned, our athletes are preparing for the Olympics. World championship competitions in different sports are now taking place as well. So, at this point we don’t have any doubts that our team will take part in the Olympics.

SS: Well, here's the thing, you see - an accusation is always louder than the rebuttal. So however clean our athletes might be, there's still an aftertaste. It's easier for the world press to just write "all Russian athletes cheat". So we have the public opinion - and the Russian sport. How do you make yourself heard here?

PK: That’s why we’re having this conversation today. That’s why I often meet with international organizations and attend international conferences, explaining our position. Of course, we are concerned about this situation but we don’t overreact, we do our best to work constructively with our partners: the IOC, international federations, WADA… They talk to us and they hear us, because we’ve known each other for a long time. I was on the WADA Foundation Board for four years. I know the directors of all these organizations. Yes, there is a certain difference of opinion, but I see it rather as a challenge, as something we need to work on.

SS: I have a couple of examples of athletes from different countries who got caught using doping -and came up with very creative explanations. There was this skier from Norway, Theresa Johaug, she said that doping got into her system through tanning lotion. An American runner, Gil Roberts, he said "well you know I kissed a girl, that's how it got in". So Johaug only had to serve 2 months of suspension, and the runner just got away with it. But in our case, the reaction is really harsh against Russian athletes. And there's no rock-solid proof. Can we say outright that WADA is biased?

PK: No, I wouldn’t say that. I wouldn’t say WADA is biased. Still, we’d like to see one standard applied to everybody. Usually, when there is an incident – then a commission is formed, and the incident is investigated individually. So what we would like to see is commissions and investigations in every individual case, every time. There should be some regulation about that. And I have repeatedly spoken about this when I was on the Foundation Board of WADA. So I don’t want to talk about bias, but there are situations like the ones you mentioned. There was a similar case when a hockey player claimed that he only kissed a girl, and she used some kind of a skin cream, and that’s how something got into his system. Well, there are situations like that. What do you expect athletes to say when they get caught? They always try to come up with some sort of explanation. But we have plenty problems of our own, so frankly I don’t want to discuss other people’s problems.

SS: Ok, so look, WADA has started 96 cases against our athletes - those are our problems already - and 95 of these cases went nowhere for the lack of definite proof of guilt. Why did such shaky proof cause so much damage?

PK: That’s what we’ve been saying all along. We always say that there should be personal liability for athletes. Each incident should be properly investigated. We always say that we are willing to provide all the data available to us. And that’s what we’re doing. All our federations work with their international counterparts, providing them with all the documents and all the data required. So, we have this situation now where 95 of our athletes have been cleared. Actually, we still don’t even know their names. We’ve asked who those athletes are but we didn’t get an answer. Of course, we’re happy that they’ve been cleared, and we believe that this is the way to go: to investigate each incident individually.

SS: We're going to come back to the individual investigations, but I wanted to ask about the Russian anti-doping agency, which is slowly beginning to operate again, under international supervision. When will it become fully functional and independent? You've said in March that it will happen in November - that's quite soon...

PK: Currently, the Russian Anti-Doping Agency has been declared non-compliant with the WADA Code. But essentially it has been operating as a regular anti-doping agency since May. What this means is that it has been in charge of planning, testing, of educational programs and investigations. Of course, UKADA still assists their doping officers, as they’ve been doing for the past 18 months. We have two international experts working at RUSADA. But essentially the agency is fully independent, organizationally and financially. In October, we had a thorough audit done by WADA. All the data was sent to the WADA compliance commission, which will meet on October 24 to review the status of RUSADA. And then they’ll send their recommendations to the WADA Foundation Board, which will meet in November. And that’s when the final decision on compliance with the WADA Code will be made. In fact, RUSADA is not the only anti-doping agency that’s been declared non-compliant. I think there are about seven agencies like that. This doesn’t mean, though, that our athletes are unable to compete, or to be tested. They all compete, and they’re all being tested by RUSADA or by their federations. So, we don’t have to worry, because we know that all of our athletes are being properly tested.

SS: A little bit more on that - WADA has two key requirements of Russia. First is to acknowledge that the McLaren doping report is accurate, and second is to show the doping probes that are at the moment in the hands of Russian law enforcement. Are you ready to go along with these demands?

PK: As soon as the McLaren report came out, we responded immediately. First, we replaced the presidents of the federations in question. There were some high-profile cases. We replaced a number of officials in charge of anti-doping policies – say, at the Ministry of Sports. Also, we started reforming the Russian Anti-Doping Agency and the anti-doping lab, which has now been transferred to Moscow State University. The Russian law enforcement immediately launched a probe, which is still under way. So, you might say, we didn’t ignore the McLaren report. The report itself is very complex. There’s a lot of data in it. Immediately after its release, the IOC set up two commissions. Many federations are conducting their own investigations as well. So we have received this information, and we agree with some of the issues raised in this report. And with some others we don’t agree. But I can tell you clearly that we have never had a state-sponsored doping system in Russia, which is the primary accusation in the report. We’ve never had any “institutional conspiracy.” So, we admit that the problem is there, and we’re working on it. As you know, the government has adopted a set of measures to reform our anti-doping policies. In other words, the government is now directly involved in this work. So, we will present our position and all the data shortly, before the compliance commission meets. As far as samples are concerned, like I said, the law enforcement probe is underway; investigators are questioning witnesses and performing tests. Samples are being used as evidence in this case, so they can’t be released. The investigation is led by an independent body, and I don’t even know when they are going to finish it. But once it is completed, it is quite possible that a decision will be made to hand over these samples. So, there’s nothing I can say at this point. Like I said, it’s not up to the Ministry of Sports.

SS: Richard McLaren said that the Russians refuse to talk to him. What do you have to say to that?

PK: Actually, I personally met with McLaren about a year ago. Heads of the Russian Olympic Committee and the Independent Ant-Doping Commission have also met with him. We have complied with all requests for information – not just from McLaren, but also from WADA. And we are continuing to do so – working with the two IOC commissions as well. So I would disagree with McLaren on this. We have never refused to meet with him; on the contrary, we kept inviting him. As far as I know, the Russian Investigative Committee formally requested information from McLaren and his sources.

SS: Let's talk a bit about the IOC, which is taking a peacemaking position, so to speak, is looking for some kind of a compromise. The anti-doping organisations, in counterpoint, are taking a harsh stance - calling for sanctions, blanket bans, etc. Why is there such a difference in approach and can the IOC help Russia somehow?

PK: I wouldn’t compare these two organisations, they have completely different approaches…

SS: Well for us layfolk, those two organisations, they do decide something here...

PK: Well, the International Olympic Committee organizes the Olympic Games. Of course, the IOC wants to see harmony and integrity in the Olympic movement. But I wouldn’t say that the IOC defends us or takes our side. That is not entirely true. The IOC is conducting an unbiased investigation of the information it received from the McLaren reports. 

SS: Well in any case, will the IOC be able to help Russia or not? I have a feeling they do have the power to help Russia if they wanted to...

PK: We don’t need help. We want an objective investigation into every fact mentioned in the report. We are fully complying with all their demands, but we support the idea of individual, not collective responsibility. Every athlete, every coach must be responsible for their own actions and decisions. So I’ll say it again – we don’t need help. We are working with the International Olympic Committee and submit all the data they ask for. Just recently Alexander Zhukov met with Mr. Schmitt and answered all the questions the commission had for us. 

SS: So you are also in cooperation with the Schmidt commission as well?

PK: I’ve met with Schmitt as well. You cannot imagine the volume of documents we have submitted to the commission. We support their work. We are positive that they are very responsible and highly professional people.

SS: So I do want to ask about the Russian Paralympic team, where are we now, will they be able to take part in the Games?

PK: For two years, our athletes have been left out of international Paralympic events. We were present at other competitions that are not part of the International Paralympic Committee roster. We even participated in world championships. Five people have qualified for the Paralympic curling team. In September, the International Paralympic Committee decided to allow Russian athletes to compete under a neutral flag (for now) in Paralympic qualifiers. 68 athletes will participate in these qualifiers. I am convinced that all of them will win their chance to compete in the Paralympics, because all our athletes are in top shape and are respected by the international sports community. So we expect 73 people to compete in the Paralympics.

SS: Now, to weightlifting. The Russian weightlifting team has been handed a one-year suspension. Here the situation is more complicated than in athletics, since in athletics the athletes at least have an opportunity to participate under a neutral flag. What are we doing about this?

PK: The situation with our weightlifters is different from the track and field athletes. The International Weightlifting Federation made a ruling against several countries which had serious problems. Teams from eight or nine countries, including Russia, can’t compete internationally for about a year (the term differs a little bit from country to country). And yes, many of our athletes tested positive. The same is true for weightlifters from China, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and some other countries. Of course, we are not happy with the situation, but this would be a good opportunity for our athletes to think everything over. The International Weightlifting Federation is also experiencing certain difficulties in its relations with the IOC. This is one the most problematic sports, I would say. But our junior and cadet weightlifters will participate in all international competitions. We already missed the world championship this year, but I am sure that all our athletes will compete in all international events next year. Working together with the federation, we have developed an anti-doping plan. So we are ready to work on the issue and use this time to think about what could be done.

SS: In any case, our athletics performers now have to compete under a neutral flag. You are fighting for the right to compete under the national banner. Is a victory under a neutral flag really that different from the one under the Russian flag? We all know those are Russian athletes...

PK: Of course, we all know. And the whole world knows that the athletes who competed in the recent IAAF World Championships were Russian champions. 11 people were there, and they got 6 medals. But it is insulting and humiliating not to be able to compete under your country’s flag. And I think it wasn’t a smart decision on the part of the federation as well. The IAAF made itself look silly, it adopted a very formal approach. It looks strange, and we are doing everything we can to change that. Unfortunately, the IAAF didn’t even explain why certain athletes were allowed or not allowed to compete. Hopefully, this will soon get resolved.

SS: Well, while we are trying to settle all this, it's still better for our athletes to win medals instead of waiting until they are allowed to compete in Russian colours...

PK: Or course. It is very important to athletes. It is their whole life. They start training when they were 6 or 7 years old, they prepare for the Olympics and World Championships all their lives. They have been working very hard for this, it is their life goal to compete internationally. So even with a neutral flag, we all know that they are Russian athletes who represent our country and fight not only for themselves but also for other people who have been banned.

SS: This I want to ask you since you're not only a government minister, but also an Olympic champion. This whole doping story - you can't deny it's a problem in global sports, not just in Russia. What do you think - is there such a thing as clean sport nowadays? I'm having an impression that the physical competition has turned into a competition of enhancement drugs...

PK: I think that most sports are clean. But there’s really so much talk about the problems of doping, unfair judging, fans, and safety, we’re making sports mostly about these issues, not actual competitions. We ourselves made doping the main issue in sports, forgetting about the real thing.  

SS: Well what can you do if there's more and more doping? No?

PK: This is not exactly the case. Last year Russian athletes had been tested by the UK Anti-Doping a number of times and only 0.6% of athletes had tested positive. Naturally, there will always be athletes who use dishonest means to achieve good results, but they are not many and their number is decreasing. Methods for detecting doping are getting more and more sophisticated. Also, most athletes intend to achieve some results in sports by honest means and keep the principles of fair play alive. That’s how I competed and I believe that the respect of your friends, colleagues and competitors is as valuable as gold medals.

SS: There is another rule that I don't quite get, maybe you'll help me as an athlete. For instance, a person with asthma can take doping, or someone with a looser defined ADHD can take banned drugs that no one else is allowed to take. Your predecessor, Vitaly Mutko, told me that there are some teams where 80% of athletes suffer from asthma. I don't know, I'm not a pro in this field, do you feel it's a just rule?

PK: First of all, this rule – which is called therapeutic use exemptions – is indispensable, because there are athletes with medical conditions that require them to take particular medications, and they must also have a chance to participate in competitions. I myself used a certain medication when I participated in competitions, but, actually, my medication disrupted my performance instead of helping me achieve better results. On the other hand, certain medications not only help with athletes’ conditions but also have performance-enhancing effects. But our main goal is to ensure an equal playing field for all athletes, so if some athletes who are healthy aren’t using any medications, yet others are granted a TUE to use certain substances that not only cure and help them but also enhance their performance, then we should look into this. I’m talking not only about Russia, but also about WADA, because the principle of equal conditions is being violated.

SS: I also feel that this rule leaves too many loopholes. I mean, asthma is one thing, it's serious, but ADHD - it's such a loose diagnosis, what is it at the end of the day? Anyone can claim to have it, say "ah yes I have this disorder". I may have attention deficit, but I don't take banned substances to concentrate on this interview right now, you know? I try to handle it...

PK: However, the attention deficit disorder is a serious condition. So we should all be paying more attention to these cases!

SS: Alright, I also want to talk about how sport is funded - in Russia and in China the government supports it. In Western countries, sport is more often financed privately. Do you think that there might be a situation where a coach goes to bend the doping rules - to justify the budget subsidy he gets?

PK: No, these things are not related, I’m sure. As for funding in sports, it always comes from various sources more or less. Maybe only in America funding in sports is different. There are many private sport associations, student sports clubs, they get a large portion of funding through advertising. So it’s really hard to make comparisons. But in most countries governments play a big role in athletes’ training. Again, we should take an individual approach. There are coaches who encourage doping, this is the reason why we in Russia have recently introduced criminal liability for coaches and other staff members who encourage doping practices. We believe this will help us stop these dishonest coaches who force children to start using banned substances. Doping is actually very harmful for athletes’ health.

SS: Let's get away from the doping. Let's talk about the fans, this is also something that resonates in the world. So Mr. Mark Roberts, who headed the English police operation during the Euro-2016 in France, he still thinks that the football hooligans are still a threat despite all the initiatives taken by the Russian government, the Gentlefan and all that, the football hooligans they come - and everyone should be afraid of them. What is to be done with this?

PK: Well, what can we do about it? What can we do about Mark Roberts? Nothing. What can we do about such claims? You know that we’ve successfully hosted Confederations Cup and we haven’t had a single problem with fans. The fan problem is not limited to Russia – we all know what British fans are like.

SS: It was them who invented the whole thing!...

PK: By the way, the word “hooligan” is not of Russian origin. There are also Turkish and French fans. True, there are certain individuals who violate rules. But again, the way the Confederations Cup was held proved that we know how to work with our fans. Also, World Cup ticket sales have already started, and we have already received 3.5 million applications from various countries. This proves that foreign fans looked at the way the Confederations Cup went down, and saw that everything was fine, and decided to go. We pay no attention to this kind of claims. I’m sure they are not based on real facts and on the actual evaluation of the situation with fans. But of course handling fans is a challenge for us.

SS: I just want to hear it from you, in simple terms... Do you think that enforcement measures - like putting more cops out on the streets, tracking known hooligans, ban people from stadiums - is this enough, or something else needs to be done?

PK: First of all, football clubs need to work with their fans. There are loyalty programs, as well as matters of logistics – where fans should be seated during the match. It’s also a matter of cultural and educational levels of fans. We need to separate law abiding fans who come to support their teams and are doing this very actively, which is very good, from those who come to behave like hooligans and cause disorder. Those who violate the law should get the administrative or criminal punishment they deserve. You know, we have introduced harsher administrative and punishment, for example, banning people from stadiums.

SS: What should happen to those who break those rules - prison time?

PK: It depends. I believe our law in this respect is absolutely clear. First of all a person could be banned from matches for up to 2 years, they could be fined, they also could be subject to criminal punishment. By the way, foreign fans who previously violated the law will not be able to come. In this respect we, naturally, cooperate with foreign law enforcements and football institutions. Just like with doping. And with doping, it’s not just a matter of testing and punishment, but also a matter of education and culture. At the very beginning when people are introduced to sports you need to explain to them why doping is really bad for your health – this is our main task. Even though it’s true that in certain kinds of sports this problem does exist.

SS: So if Team Russia goes to the Olympics after all, how many medals should be expected of them?

PK: I would not use the word “if”. Our athletes will go to the Olympics. As for the medals, in all winter sports we can expect to get medals of all kinds, gold included. Only in ski jumping, in Nordic combined and in Alpine skiing our athletes’ could struggle, but even there we can win medals. I believe we can be in the top three. Of course, it won’t be easy to repeat the Sochi achievements, because in Sochi our athletes competed on their home ground with their fans supporting them, the enthusiasm helped. It would be very difficult to repeat those results. But I’m sure our athletes are going to perform very decently to make their Russian fans and their international fans very happy.