MOSCOW (AP) — While the scandal of Russian doping threatens to be one of the main talking points of the Rio Olympics, other countries are slipping under the radar despite sharing the tainted legacy of the Soviet sports system.
Countries like Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine punch above their weight in the Olympic medal table, but their high rates of performance enhancing drug use, flawed testing systems and records of political interference in sport are a cause for concern.
Excluding Russia, more than 80 medals, 22 of them gold, went to other post-Soviet countries at the 2012 Olympics, though some were later stripped when athletes tested positive. While none is a top-level sports power individually, their joint achievements in the medal table rival those of Russia, but with much less scrutiny.
Russia is “successful and there is a problem,” said sports scientist Sergei Iljukov, an expert consultant with the Estonian Anti-Doping Agency. “Those countries who are not that successful but have problems as well, they are still in the shadows.”
Belarusian Nadzeya Ostapchuk won the Olympic shot put gold in London with the help of the banned steroid metenolone but her glory lasted just a week before lab results came back and she lost the medal.
Athletes from six more ex-Soviet countries — Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Moldova, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan — including the winners of at least five gold medals have failed testing of their samples from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, including retests this year.
While only Russia has been accused of operating a highly organized, state-sponsored doping system, with government officials covering up hundreds of failed drug tests, nearby countries share many of the elements of Russia’s flawed system.
Post-Soviet countries are among the worst offenders worldwide on doping, with hundreds of cases across various sports in the last decade.
Kazakhstan and Belarus have had numerous medals from various competitions stripped for doping, and both have been threatened with a ban from weightlifting at next month’s Olympics for numerous doping offenses, including the case of four Kazakh gold medalists from the 2012 games who all face losing their titles for positive tests.
Kazakhstan’s biggest post-Soviet star, cyclist Alexander Vinokourov, was thrown out of the Tour de France and banned in 2007 for blood doping, but returned to win Olympic gold in 2012 before retiring.
Ukraine has problems in track and field, while in the Caucasus, Azerbaijan has racked up dozens of doping cases, mainly in weightlifting. Some ex-Soviet nations, particularly the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, tend to have fewer PED cases and higher rates of testing.
Decades of using drugs as a “shortcut” to international sports success mean that sports science in ex-Soviet countries has been neglected and coaches rely on outdated knowledge, says Iljukov.
When more than 100 athletes in the former Soviet Union tested positive for the newly banned substance meldonium earlier this year, it emerged many had been taking it not to enhance performance, but on the advice of coaches who believed it would prevent heart attacks, despite little evidence for the claim.
Sports officials in three ex-Soviet countries also told The Associated Press at the time that they believed meldonium to be a so-called “masking agent” which conceals other doping substances in a sample, even though anti-doping experts say it has no such effect.
Ukraine’s National Anti-Doping Center has the dubious distinction of conducting the fewest tests worldwide, with just two in the whole of 2014, the last year for which full statistics are available. Although Ukraine was in political turmoil, that is a tiny number for a country which won 19 medals at the 2012 Olympics and is a major power in weightlifting, one of the worst-affected sports for doping.
Despite longstanding doping problems, Belarus conducted 221 tests in 2014, less than a tenth of the number conducted in Finland, which has half the population. There is little remedy for the World Anti-Doping Agency WADA to change the situation, because it sets no minimum standards for the number of tests a country must conduct.
Ukraine’s NADC was briefly suspended last winter by WADA, but that was for sending samples to a non-approved lab. Two people who identified themselves as employees of the NADC ended phone calls when asked to comment on its activities. Further calls were not answered and the Ukrainian Youth and Sports Ministry refused to comment.
Iljukov says some governments seem reluctant to finance their countries’ drug-testing agencies, fearful of what they might find. While Kazakhstan is a comparative leader with 2,000 samples taken in 2014, other Central Asian countries don’t have any testing agencies of their own and rely on patchy testing from authorities based abroad.
After staff at Russia’s national drug testing laboratory were suspected of covering up doping by their country’s athletes, WADA launched spot checks of standards at other labs worldwide, suspending several for procedural errors. The upshot is that the entire former Soviet Union does not have a single fully-functioning lab after sites in Moscow and Kazakhstan were suspended.
Now, if an athlete is tested in the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan, their sample must be flown almost 1,600 miles (2,600 kilometers) to the nearest functioning lab in India; further if sent to larger-capacity facilities in Europe. That poses a major problem for the blood tests needed to detect some substances. If a sample doesn’t reach a lab within 36 hours of collection, it must be thrown away.
While no other ex-Soviet country has been accused of running a state-supervised doping system like Russia, close political links to sport in other nations create conflicts of interest that could allow drug cheats to prosper. Politicians, including some with much-criticized human rights records, often run sports bodies as personal fiefdoms, meaning whistleblowers must brave potential political retaliation if they speak out.
In Belarus, strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko also runs the national Olympic committee and provides patronage for ex-athletes like hammer thrower and former doper Vadim Devyatovsky, who is now a member of parliament. In 2014, Devyatovsky used his political clout to take over the Belarus track and field federation, even though he was supposed to be serving a worldwide provisional suspension from all sports activities. The sanction was later lifted by the Court of Arbitration for Sport and he remains in his post.
Some countries take advantage of a lack of WADA rules requiring national anti-doping agencies to be independent of government. The head of Azerbaijan’s AZADA agency, Irada Rustamzade, is also employed at the Sports Ministry as head of its anti-doping office.