Profiles 29 April 2016

Interview: Hajo Seppelt on how collusion in sport continues

‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’
Animal Farm, George Orwell, 1945.

Hajo Seppelt has spent much of his professional career exposing doping and corruption in sport. Although he has recently been praised for his work in exposing systemic doping in Russia, he is worried that sport’s lack of follow-up action shows that it is not fully committed to reform. Seppelt has recently exposed that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) held meetings at the SportAccord Convention in April about readmitting Russia ahead of the Rio Olympics.

Sebastian Coe recently said that Russia faces its “come to Jesus moment” on 17 June, however allegations of systemic doping in Russia have been being investigated since December 2014. Contrast this with the treatment of Kenya, which has been given a 2 May deadline by WADA, despite only having been placed on WADA’s watchlist on 12 February this year. “I am really interested to see if Mr. Bach [IOC President Thomas Bach] – who always talks about zero tolerance in respect of doping – shows also zero tolerance with respect to Russia”, says Seppelt.

The fact that athletes from the Russian Athletics Federation (RusAF) may be able to take their place on the starting line in Rio appears even odder when you consider the approach of other international federations that have been faced with apparent systemic doping. In November last year, the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) banned Bulgaria from taking part in the Rio Olympics, after a number of its weightlifters tested positive.

In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the ‘Seven Commandments of Animalism’ are adapted after the pigs take control of the farm. The most important of these, ‘All Animals Are Equal’, is adapted into a single commandment, replacing all seven: ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’. According to Seppelt, such an allegory is apt in sport today.

“The Bulgarian weightlifters are not allowed to compete”, argues Seppelt. “If you compare the situation of weightlifting in Bulgaria with the situation of Russia in athletics, then it would be highly unfair to say that the Bulgarians are not allowed to compete, but the Russians are allowed. All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others. The Russians are not more equal than others. If you take out the Bulgarian weightlifters, then you cannot allow the Russians to compete.”

Russia: Perestroika?

Seppelt argues that the Russian situation is more serious, as his latest documentary (video – in English – below) showed that banned coaches were still training athletes in Russia. “They are saying that they cannot take responsibility for individuals who are still coaching athletes when they are not allowed to do that, such as Vladimir Mokhnev”, said Seppelt. “I accept that he is a long way away [he has allegedly been coaching athletes in Gubkin, a remote Russian town], but he is in the protocol. His name is everywhere. What are the Russian federation doing about this? They are trying to save their reputation – that is what they are doing. But they are not digging in and solving the issue. You have to make a clear statement as an international athletics federation. That means you have to say no. If we open the door for them, then in the future all the other federations will say the same thing – OK, we can have a state sanctioned system, but that doesn’t mean that we will not be allowed to compete.”

Interestingly, Seppelt says that neither the IAAF, IOC nor RusAF got in touch with him after his latest documentary aired on 6 March this year. The Russian Athletics Federation (RusAF) has only recently approached him to discuss his work. One of the more serious allegations made in ‘Doping – Top Secret: Russia’s red herrings’ was that RUSADA had been telling athletes when doping controls would take place. Specifically, it accused acting RUSADA Director Anna Antseliovich of telling an athlete when a doping test would take place in 2014.

“She said that she was never involved in any testing plans”, said Seppelt. “But that didn’t answer my question, which was very clear: did you ever talk to athletes to discuss the timing of any doping controls? She didn’t reply on that. She said: if you have a reinstatement process – and this was a reinstatement of an athlete who was a doper – for logistical reasons it might be appropriate to help the athlete because they need to be tested. But this is not a valid excuse. If you are a cheater and a doper and you get caught, then it is even more important that testing should be unannounced. It’s completely illogical.”

Seppelt also argues that recent comments made by officials do not indicate that a revolution in Russian sport will happen anytime soon. In March tennis star, Maria Sharapova confessed to testing positive for meldonium, which became banned when the 2016 Prohibited List came into effect on 1 January. However a day later, Russian tennis federation President Shamil Tarpischev said that he thought Sharapova would be able to compete at the Rio 2016 Olympics.

Although a return to the Olympics may now be possible after WADA recently clarified how anti-doping organisations (ADOs) should be approaching meldonium positives, Seppelt points out that Tarpischev’s comments pre-date this clarification by over a month. “Once again, the Russians have said something that is completely against the spirit of the rules of anti-doping”.

When her case is eventually heard, Sharapova will have a difficult question to answer, as she confessed to taking mildronate (the brand name for meldonium) for ten years on the advice of her doctor. However, she lives in the US, where the drug is not approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Meldonium use in Russia

Sharapova is proudly Russian, and the use of meldonium appears to have been largely confined to Russian and eastern European countries. Seppelt’s March documentary features the results of a study which shows that 17% of Russian athletes were using meldonium in 2015.

“This is a study from the Moscow laboratory in 2015”, says Seppelt. “It showed that 17% of the samples from 4,300 athletes analysed in 2015 showed metabolites of meldonium. That means that almost every fifth athlete in Russia was taking meldonium in 2015. At that time, it was not prohibited, as you know. It is now prohibited, but this shows the prevalence of its use.”

Seppelt doesn’t blame Russian athletes for use of meldonium. He argues it is another symptom of the systematic doping in Russia that he has identified through his previous documentaries. The first of these was broadcast in December 2014; the second – which contained the infamous IAAF blood testing data – aired in August 2015; followed by the March 2016 documentary, which contained evidence that banned coaches were continuing to operate in Russia.

“You also have to understand that in Russia, athletes are sometimes treated like cattle”, he said. “Sometimes, I think that they are not given the opportunity to use their own judgement to think for themselves, because people don’t let them. They just use them.”

He also argues that in his experience, athletes in Russia have not been given the anti-doping education that is taken for granted in other countries. “Russian athletes sometimes have a lack of knowledge and understanding of doping control procedures, and most of them don’t speak English”, he explains. “I can imagine that many Russian athletes have been left alone with no knowledge of anti-doping procedures. There are a lot of coaches who are also not familiar with these aspects. I wouldn’t say that they did this deliberately in 2016, because that would be stupid. They just did the same as they had been doing in 2015. They fell into the trap.”

Managing Russian doping?

Seppelt’s latest evidence of meetings between the IOC and the IAAF over Russia’s place at the 2016 Rio Olympics add credence to his assertion that sport is managing doping, rather than tackling it. WADA was also present at  SportAccord, where Seppelt alleges that the IOC put pressure on the IAAF to readmit Russia before the 2016 Rio Olympics. Was it unaware of the talks between the IAAF and the IOC, or did it turn a blind eye?

Seppelt suggests that WADA’s behaviour towards Russia during the Independent Commission’s investigation suggests that the latter is true. WADA President Sir Craig Reedie sent an email of reassurance to the Russian Ministry of Sport during the Independent Commission’s investigation.

‘I wish to make it clear to you and to the Minister that there is no action being taken by WADA that is critical of the efforts which I know have been made, and are being made, to improve anti-doping efforts in Russia’, writes Reedie in the email, dated 30 April 2015. ‘This should in no way indicate any change in the relationship which we have built up since the World Athletics Championships in Moscow. WADA is pleased that these relationships have survived much of the adverse publicity caused by the ARD television programmes (which is likely to continue for some time). On a personal level I value the relationship I have with Minister Mutko and I shall be grateful if you will inform him that there is no intention in WADA to do anything to affect that relationship.’

It is also understood that WADA fired its Chief Investigator, Jack Robertson, for sharing some of the conclusions of the second Independent Commission report ahead of its publication. Robertson is a former US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent and worked with the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) on its investigation into Lance Armstrong.

“Sir Craig Reedie said that he had retired, which is a lie”, says Seppelt. “As far as I know, he has not retired, he was fired. I cannot comment on the content – I can just say that what they say is not true.”

Seppelt argues that approaching Russia with emails during a period when they are under investigation is a more serious crime than sharing the conclusions of a report with trusted colleagues. “Craig Reedie told me that he doesn’t see any conflict of interests”, he said. “Excuse me? In every big company in the world, if you wear two different hats, people would say that doesn’t work. Why in sport is it any different? You cannot work as a nutritionist and also flip burgers in McDonalds.”

“I get the feeling that they wanted to get rid of him”, continues Seppelt. “If you fire a person who has helped uncover the truth in Russia for such a small mistake…then I don’t understand that. If somebody in WADA writes emails to Russia during a period where you shouldn’t be in touch with them, then I don’t understand how that is different. Jack Robertson is a very trustful and very courageous person. He was doing a lot to clean up sport. He was one of the key people in the major cases over the last couple of years.”

Seppelt says that Reedie is “the main concern” within WADA at the moment. “He will have a hard time if he continues in this way”, he argues. “He doesn’t understand that he has to take responsibility towards the public, but not to the IOC. He doesn’t see a conflict of interest. It’s a clear conflict of interest! Even if he doesn’t feel that, even the impression that he recognises the conflict of interest would be enough. If it might appear that you have a conflict of interest, then you should avoid that.”

Ivory towers & the wrong message

At the Tackling Doping in Sport conference in March, where The Sports Integrity Initiative spoke to Seppelt, former professional cyclist David Millar said that sporting bodies need to come down from their “ivory towers” and re-engage with athletes. It was also suggested that sport needs to find a new way of funding anti-doping, perhaps by allocating a fixed percentage of sponsorship money and TV rights towards it. Given that Seppelt’s work has also uncovered issues in Kenya, China and elsewhere, it is an idea that he supports.

“Journalism, investigations and a properly financed anti-doping control system and an established independent commission would be a start, because they are needed”, he argues. “Billions of dollars circulate around the world in sports marketing. Mr. Bach and all the others fly first class to every event lodging in five-star hotels. At the same time, athletes have to stay in the Olympic village and fly economy. Who are the most important people there?

Seppelt argues that this sends the wrong message, which athletes and others are starting to pick up on. “If the IOC guys think that they can do things this way but on the other hand say they have spent $10 million on anti-doping…what is $10 million? Nothing! If they take it seriously, they should invest much more money.”

Athletes are also starting to realise that the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) may not be the best place to hear a doping dispute which could end their career. From its establishment in 1983 until 1994, the CAS was solely funded by the IOC. In 1994, the Paris Agreement was signed, which created the International Council of Arbitration for Sport (ICAS).

Under this agreement, ICAS secures funding for the CAS from the IOC, international federations and National Olympic Committees (NOCs). However, as stated in the History of the CAS on its website: ‘Since the Paris Agreement was signed, all Olympic International Federations and many National Olympic Committees have recognised the jurisdiction of the Court of Arbitration for Sport and included in their statutes an arbitration clause referring disputes to the CAS. Since the World Conference on Doping in Sport, held in March 2003, the Olympic Movement and numerous governments have promulgated the World Anti-Doping Code, Article 13 of which states that the CAS is the appeals body for all international doping-related disputes.’

In fact, many national sporting bodies go further than this and include a clause in their athlete agreement which requires athletes to settle all disputes at the CAS. What this effectively creates is a closed shop funded by sport. Should an arbitration body that is funded and staffed by the prosecutor (sport) be making decisions that can effectively end an athlete’s career? Athletes such as Kristen Worley and Claudia Pechstein are starting to realise and highlight this, and are taking their cases elsewhere.

“They are wearing two hats again”, points out Seppelt. “Sometimes somebody is a lawyer at the CAS, the next time an Arbitrator…I don’t understand why – given the billions of dollars that sport generates – it is so complicated to have a court with independent people? Why not?”

Coming out of the Dark Ages

Seppelt traces many of the issues that sport faces today back to its governance structures, which he argues are now outdated and need replacing. “The biggest problem is that most of these people are volunteers”, he explains. “Some sports federations in 2016 are still structured like they are in the middle ages. You have to change that structure. The problem is that 20 or 30 years ago it was the same, but nobody talked about it because it wasn’t in the public domain. It wasn’t transparent at all. Now it is transparent, people are starting to realise that this model is not up to date. There is much more pressure, and they don’t understand that this is not because we like to attack them, we just see it for what it is – undemocratic.”

Seppelt says that the governance of sport has failed to keep pace with the relatively rapid commercialisation of sport. He argues that sport has become like many other businesses, and so needs the same levels of professionalism and outside scrutiny. He explains that recent doping, match-fixing and corruption scandals illustrate that sport has failed to effectively regulate itself.

“They need much more public control”, says Seppelt. “The reason that we have anti-doping laws, sports corruption laws, betting laws, etc. was due to the federations and their way of dealing with these issues. They missed the opportunity to regulate that, and that is their problem, not ours.”

Two hats

However, despite his criticisms, Seppelt has noticed a change in approach from some within sport to the issues he has been unearthing for over 20 years. He says that he has not received any more threatening letters from the IAAF since January.

“They have changed”, he said. “I have to acknowledge that the IAAF Task Force has tried really hard to get evidence and to get the truth. If IAAF top officials trust the Task Force and what others have explored, then the message is clear. If Mr. Coe or others will be influenced by political thoughts and considerations, then it might be complicated. It is very interesting timing now, because it is all highly sensitive ahead of Rio.”

Seppelt was also “surprised” to be commended for his work by WADA. “I have been working on doping stories for more than 20 years now, and this was the first time that a sports official had said thank you. Normally, it its exactly the opposite. They blame me and they don’t like people who muddy the waters. They hated the way we did our work and I have so many experiences with sports officials who didn’t like what we had done. I remember when cycling had a different management, they told me that journalists should promote sport.”

At first glance, it is surprising that it has taken sport so long to thank Seppelt. Given that most of the major doping cases (Russia, Lance Armstrong, Operación Puerto) have come about as a result of investigations rather than testing, you would think that sport would welcome Seppelt’s approach. However, he has faced constant threats and legal action over his work in exposing doping.

Why is this? Why do athletes and whistleblowers go to Seppelt rather than the very body that is supposed to represent their interests? The reason is that the anti-doping movement has eaten itself. By focussing on ‘strict liability’ and implementing ever-lengthening bans, sport has scared away anyone it represents from coming forward with useful information. It is this approach that created the famous ‘omertà’ in cycling, because there was no point speaking out if you were going to be blacklisted. In today’s climate, the old mantra that sport must ‘catch and punish the doping cheats’ seems especially tired.

Sport needs to re-engage with its athletes. It cannot do this by holding meetings about readmitting wealthy and powerful partners, while others are shut out. It cannot do this whilst punishing poorer nations for cheating and allowing richer ones to continue as normal. It cannot do this while putting reforms in place on paper that do little in practice. If it continues in this manner, it will have to continue to thank Seppelt for cleaning up its mess.

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