LAUSANNE, Switzerland — Global antidoping leaders agreed unanimously on Monday to banish Russia from international sports — including next summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo — for four years, the latest and severest punishment yet connected to a yearslong cheating scheme that has tarnished global sport.
The World Anti-Doping Agency’s punishment includes specific bans on Russian sports and government officials and prohibits the country from hosting international events, and it comes four years after the first details of the scheme that peaked at the 2014 Sochi Olympics were made public.
“For too long, Russian doping has detracted from clean sport,” the agency said in a statement. “Russia was afforded every opportunity to get its house in order and rejoin the global antidoping community for the good of its athletes and of the integrity of sport, but it chose instead to continue in its stance of deception and denial.”
To some, including many athlete groups and national antidoping agencies, the punishment does not go far enough, because it leaves open the possibility that hundreds of Russian athletes can appear in Tokyo, just as they did at the Winter Olympics in South Korea last year.
The decision is unlikely to surprise many given the scale of Russia’s attempt to conceal, obfuscate and frustrate attempts to unmask the beneficiaries of a state-powered doping program, remarkable for its sophistication and scope.
Still, Russia is almost certain to contest the decision. It continues to steadfastly deny many of the allegations, even after several independent investigations that have revealed a welter of evidence against it.
Russian officials have 21 days to lodge an appeal with the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport after the announcement from the antidoping agency, which convened for a special meeting near the International Olympic Committee’s headquarters in Lausanne.
If Russia is unable to have the ruling overturned, the country’s ouster from the world of international sport would stretch to events well beyond the Olympics, including soccer’s World Cup.
What has angered many is Russia’s mendacity in the face of efforts to rehabilitate the country after whistle-blower evidence helped unravel a meticulously planned — and ultimately successful — scheme in which Russian antidoping experts and members of the country’s intelligence service surreptitiously replaced urine samples tainted by performance-enhancing drugs with clean urine at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
As part of the resolution of that case, Russia agreed to provide a set of testing results to doping regulators from its Moscow laboratory. It is that database, which Russia was found to have manipulated, that is at the heart of a crisis that threatens its sporting future.
The WADA board agreed to a suite of punishments detailed in a report from a committee led by the British lawyer Jonathan Taylor which it received late last month. The penalties include forcing Russian athletes who have not been implicated in doping to compete at a second straight Olympic Games in neutral uniforms and collect any medals they win without the raising of the nation’s flag or the playing of its anthem.
They also bar Russian government officials and representatives from attending major events or from serving on the board of any organization that has signed the global antidoping code, prevent Russia from bidding on new championships, and require moving any international events the country was set to host during the four-year period.
Linda Helleland, a Norwegian who is the outgoing vice president of the antidoping agency, expressed frustration at the decision, saying she wanted the punishment to ensure that Russian athletes would not be able to compete independently, as they did in South Korea, during the ban.
But Helleland said that was not an option for what she called “the biggest sports scandal the world has ever seen,” because the board was limited to two choices: Agree with the punishments recommended by Taylor’s committee, or reject them.
“I am not happy with the decision we made today,” Helleland told reporters at the conclusion of the hourlong meeting. “This was as far as we could go.”
James Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the agency, said that the decision made on Monday was only a first step, and that the authorities would now seek to ban all Russian athletes implicated in the doping scheme or identified in the manipulated databases.
“They’re going to have to prove they had nothing to do with the noncompliance,” he said of the athletes.
While the pressure has been ratcheting up on Russia from the outside, inside the country there has been a propaganda campaign that has attempted to discredit the findings as just another Western plot.
One Russian talk show described the revelations as an attempt by Russia’s rivals to eliminate a potential medal-winning opponent, while a documentary tried to lay the blame on the whistle-blower, Grigory Rodchenkov, who helped mastermind the scheme from his position as the head of the Moscow laboratory. The claims mirror those of Russian officials who were proved by WADA investigators to frame Rodchenkov and hide the identity of the true culprits.
Russia’s denials and manipulations of data continued well after WADA had gone public in September with confirmation that thousands of crucial Russian files had been deleted or manipulated, and that the data that was provided did not match a database on Russian athletes that it received in 2017.
In a follow-up meeting in October to help explain the discrepancies, Russia’s sports minister provided WADA with fresh data, which when studied revealed yet more manipulation.
A rare voice of dissent in Russia has come from the current head of its antidoping agency, Yuri Ganus. For months, as the crisis has grown, Ganus has spoken out against his country’s handling of the scheme, telling the world that he believed thousands of athlete files had likely been deleted to save the reputations of some of Russia’s most significant figures.
He told The New York Times that the punishment was logical, but he would back an appeal he went on to describe a “mission impossible” to prevent a generation of clean athletes from being punished for a scheme they had no part in. Ganus called on Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, to personally become involved. “I think there is only one person who can change the situation,” Ganus said.
Margarita Pakhnotskaya, the deputy head of Russia’s antidoping agency, said that the ban should be a wake-up call for officials in her country who have suggested that Russia was being unfairly targeted.
“This is another reason for sports executives to think about whether we are moving in the right direction,” the Interfax news agency quoted her as saying. “I’m hearing presidents of federations and experts proudly trumpet their activities — ‘We have given all the answers, we’re surrounded only by enemies who are attacking our athletes.’ This all shows that there has been no change in our antidoping culture.”
What happens now, whether Russia can really be brought to account, will go a long way toward determining confidence in the global antidoping system. Investigators have revealed that 145 suspicious cases may not now be able to be solved, raising the possibility that athletes who cheated may be able to travel to Tokyo.
“The obvious intent by manipulating the data was to ensure doped athletes were able to escape sanction,” Travis Tygart, the chief executive of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, said recently. “Now we can never know, and all are necessarily part of the cover-up, as sad as it may seem, if there are truly innocent ones. Those in power in Russia threw them all under the bus.”
Russia, perhaps surprisingly, has so far been able to rely on the International Olympic Committee’s president, Thomas Bach of Germany, to escape a blanket ban, the severest penalty that its biggest critics, like Tygart, have long sought.
Bach rejected WADA’s request to ban Russia from the Rio Games, before backing a compromise measure which barred the Russian Olympic Committee — but not hundreds of its athletes — from the Winter Olympics two years later. As recently as last week, he underlined his view that a balance needed to be struck between “individual justice” and “collective punishment.”
On Sunday, WADA’s athlete committee said that its members backed a blanket ban. The decision was not unanimous, however, with members tied to the I.O.C. deciding not to sign their name to the statement.
Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting from Moscow.