The world athletics governing body in 2009 had evidence that doping in Russia was so heavy and widespread that it feared athletes could die from the abuses, the Associated Press reported January 12.
Moreover, athletics officials appeared to work with Russia to hide the extent of cheating before the 2012 London Olympics, according to internal documents obtained by AP.
Yet leaders of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) acted blindsided last year when a massive scandal erupted involving state-sponsored doping and cover-ups in Russia.
According to six years of internal communications obtained by AP, IAAF tests were already providing shocking insight into the widespread, serious Russian doping in 2009.
At the time, the test results weren't enough on their own to sanction athletes. But their existence raises questions about why the organization waited six years before suspending Russia.
"Not only are these athletes cheating their fellow competitors, but at these levels [they] are putting their health and even their own lives in very serious danger," Pierre Weiss, the IAAF general secretary from 2006 to 2011, wrote in an October 2009 letter to Valentin Balakhnichev, the Russian athletics president who was banned for life from the sport last week.
Russians "recorded some of the highest values ever seen since the IAAF started testing," Weiss wrote.
Tests at the 2009 world championships, where Russia won 13 medals, "strongly suggest a systematic abuse of blood doping or EPO-related products," he added.
Athletes are banned from using transfusions and the hormone EPO, which boosts levels of oxygen-carrying red blood cells, artificially improving performance. They can increase the risk of clots, strokes, and heart attacks.
In other findings, the documents reveal:
—The IAAF before the London Olympics proposed hiding doping sanctions for lesser-known Russians. But an April 2012 note said this approach couldn't be used for Russia's best athletes because that would allow them to keep "11 world titles and numerous European titles acquired under the influence of doping."
— In September 2012, an estimated 42 percent of tested Russian elite athletes doped.
— After the 2009 world competition, Weiss told Balakhnichev that seven Russians — including two gold medalists — would have been forced to sit out the competition if the IAAF had had the same rules as some other sports.
IAAF insisted on January 12 that the documents do not show any evidence of wrong-doing and that all correct procedures were followed for sanctioning athletes who doped.
"Every athlete was investigated and has either been sanctioned or is currently going through a legal process as part of being sanctioned," IAAF said in a statement.
Weiss in an interview with AP said the IAAF couldn't have suspended Russia earlier than last year, after a World Anti-Doping Agency commission concluded the Russian government was complicit in a "deeply rooted culture of cheating."
"WADA found out more than we could ever find ourselves," he said.
Still, the documents show the IAAF long worked behind the scenes with Russia before its November 13 about-face, when IAAF Council members voted 22-1 to suspend all Russian athletes. Russia must convince the IAAF it is changing to be reinstated.
With reporting by AP and Reuters