It begins with the cyclists, of course. Just before the 1998 Tour de France, a Belgian trainer named Willy Voet was arrested while crossing the border into France because his car was filled with a tremendous amount of performance-enhancing drugs. The subsequent investigation (which became known as the Festina Affair) and adjacent investigations eventually revealed widespread doping in the peloton.
The International Olympic Committee’s Medical Commission was responsible for the Tour’s doping control then, and the public relations fallout was so severe that that the IOC spent most of 1999 creating the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Barry McCaffrey, Bill Clinton’s lead drug warrior, said in 1999 that the IOC creating WADA to test Olympic athletes while it massively profited off running the Olympics presented a “fundamental conflict [of] interest.” He also said that WADA, by definition, “would not be independent, accountable, or credible enough to make it of any value.” He was right.
While Russia’s massive state-sponsored doping scheme was ongoing in 2012, WADA received an email from a Russian athlete admitting that she had doped while winning a silver medal at the London Olympics, and that it was part of standard operating procedure in her country. Instead of investigating the tip, WADA officials forwarded the email to Russian anti-doping officials. At the height of the controversy over Russian doping this year, WADA president Craig Reedie told the New York Times, “We’re not going to turn to people and say, ‘These are the rules; obey them.’”
During his organization’s non-investigation of Russian athletics, Reedie wrote to the Russian sports minister’s assistant, “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.”
(In a stark example of the conflict of interest that McCaffrey had forseen, Reedie spent most of his WADA term also serving as a member of the IOC board. He left the IOC in late 2016.)
Ultimately, as WADA continued to value its relationships with Russia, its own investigator, Jack Robertson, realized that the agency was never going to do anything. So he leaked what he knew to German filmmaker Hajo Seppelt, whose subsequent documentaries for ARD were so embarrassing to WADA that they were forced to take action.
Half-assed and years late, WADA finally did something, commissioning a pair of reports that were so damning that the IAAF, track and field’s international governing body, eventually banned the entire Russian track team from the Olympics.
WADA has little interest in catching dopers. It is so bad at its mission that in the sport I cover professionally, track and field, American athletes are rallying behind structural changes to the agency that would make it easier to detect performance-enhancing drug users. This sounds like a cynical PR move, but these changes probably would catch more dopers, and I was in the room when a bunch of superstar track athletes signed the petition asking for those changes.
This the opposite of athletes advocating for themselves, using their bargaining power not in service of higher salaries or better working conditions, but to fuel an Orwellian doping hunt. Though track athletes have far less bargaining power, baseball players did something similar when the players union idiotically used the carrot of wider-spread drug testing for financial concessions in the middle of that sport’s own turn-of-the-millennium PR crisis. But most Olympic sports are fucked up and backward, so here we are.
This is all a long way of saying that WADA has never existed to stop drugs in Olympic sports. It exists to simply be there during when drug panics crop up every decade or so. Its truest motto, from that same Times story from this summer, is simply, “They were afraid sponsor money would dry up if the Olympics were perceived as dirty.”
Try telling any of this to Russian president Vladimir Putin, though. The Russian track team has been a point of pride; at the 2012 Olympics, they won the second-most gold medals and the fourth-most track and field medals overall. The Olympic ban stripped Putin of a tool for propagating Russian greatness to an international audience.
But how do you get from WADA’s for-show crackdown to President-Elect Donald Trump?
If U.S. intelligence agencies are to be believed, Putin directed hacks on the American presidential election generally and Hillary Clinton specifically in response to (emphasis mine) “the Panama Papers disclosure and the Olympic doping scandal as US-directed efforts to defame Russia, suggesting he sought to use disclosures to discredit the image of the United States and cast it as hypocritical.” The goal of these hacks, according to the same intelligence agencies, was “to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.”
A mountain of caveats, here. The report contains numerous silly, specious claims, including a lengthy section on the television network Russia Today’s coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protests, and much of it remains classified. Even though the CIA, NSA, and FBI declare that the Russian government was behind the hacks of the Democratic National Committee’s and John Podesta’s emails, they haven’t revealed any hard evidence of those facts.
And even if you do accept the entire report as fact, for it to really matter you also have to believe that the release of DNC and Podesta emails cost Hillary Clinton the election. Given how close the voting margin was in some states, though, it isn’t unreasonable to believe that the revelations in and distraction of the hacked emails was the difference between Clinton ekeing out an embarrassingly close win and taking an apocalyptic loss.
At least as far back as 1957, Sports Illustrated was writing about “a sports and physical fitness boom with an importance in Soviet life which is unparalleled anywhere in the world today.” The Soviets were far from the first people to connect sporting prowess with a muscular foreign policy, but it is no surprise that under Putin—a longtime KGB and FSB agent—the state-sponsored doping of athletes continues unabated. And considering the diminishment of Russia’s power since the Cold War and its struggling economy, projecting power through sports might be more important than ever. Sports is a way for Putin to tell Russians that, yes, Russia is still stronger than the rest of the world.
Did Putin order the direct hacking of the Democrats in part because WADA finally got its act together enough to reveal what had been right in front of its nose for years? It doesn’t require that much of a stretch to attribute the forthcoming four years (at least) of the Trump administration to the previous 18 years of a ridiculous and ineffectual war on drugs in sports.
The one time WADA sort-of does its job ...