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German Journalist: Russia Covered Up 'Large-Scale' Athletics Doping

Russia's Maria Savinova won a gold medal in the 800-meter race at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. She has admitted doping in a phone interview.
Russia's Maria Savinova won a gold medal in the 800-meter race at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. She has admitted doping in a phone interview.

A new documentary is making waves after exposing what it says is systematic doping among Russian athletes. The film's author, German investigative journalist Hajo Seppelt, accuses Russian and international sports officials of a massive cover-up.

"Top Secret Doping: How Russia Produces Its Winners" aired this week on Germany's WDR television network. RFE/RL's Claire Bigg spoke to Seppelt about his film and the issue of doping.

[Since this interview was conducted, the president of the Russian Athletics Federation, Valentin Balakhnichev, has called the German report "slanderous accusations" that his federation believes are "aimed at discrediting Russian sport."]

RFE/RL: Much of your journalistic work has focused on doping among athletes in Germany and elsewhere. What prompted you to delve into doping practices in Russia?

Hajo Seppelt: In February, during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, we researched the use of Full-Size MGF, a doping substance that stimulates muscle growth, and xenon gas, which enhances oxygen transport by the blood and appears to be widely used in Russia.

We were then approached by people who wanted to tell us about doping practices in Russia. We came in contact with several individuals from the Russian sports world, including trainers, athletes, and a former member of the Russian Antidoping Agency. A picture gradually emerged of what, in our opinion, is truly going on in Russia. This resulted in the film.

RFE/RL: Sports doping is obviously a very sensitive issue. How were you able to obtain enough information to produce this film?

Seppelt: We were able to regularly meet with whistle-blowers, and they gave us interviews describing large-scale involvement by officials, trainers, athletes, and medics -- who are also by all accounts implicated. At first, these were only claims. But then whistle-blowers gave us evidence in the form of documents as well as video and audio data. This evidence turned these allegations into facts.

RFE/RL: Your film details what appears to be a massive cover-up operation. How was such a vast doping scheme concealed from the public, and how high up do you think this cover-up goes?

Seppelt: A Russian track-and-field athlete, a top discus thrower, told us that 99 percent of athletes are allegedly involved in the Russian doping system, at least in track and field. These are her own claims. But judging by the facts available, we can assume that a large number of Russian athletes are part of this system.

It goes higher up, and proof of this is the fact that the Sports Ministry 100 percent bankrolls the fight against doping and keeps a tight lid on it. Then there's [Russian President Vladimir] Putin himself. A few years ago, when he was still prime minister, he issued a government directive that effectively placed doping testing by foreign experts under the supervision of Russian officials and required foreign controllers to approve the transportation and export of urine and blood samples with Russian officials. This is a farce.

So we're talking about a cover-up, we're talking about doping samples, we're talking about most people not being tested although they should have been, about the fact that the Russian Antidoping Agency is obviously not fully meeting doping-control standards. So we must unfortunately assume that a system of doping manipulation is present in Russia and is at least tolerated, if not backed by the state.

RFE/RL: Some viewers have drawn a parallel between the malpractices detailed in your film and the massive doping program conducted at the time in former East Germany. Is this analogy correct in your opinion?

Seppelt: I think we can definitely compare East Germany and Russia, we can say there are similarities. But I wouldn't speak of a state-managed program like the GDR had, when it was organized from above. In Russia, it's a state-supported system. Many people know about it and play along, and there is an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, people who speak about it are threatened. It's just not as thoroughly coordinated as it was in the GDR.

RFE/RL: Many former East German athletes are now suffering severe health problems. Are Russian athletes using a new generation of safer drugs, or do they, too, face long-term damage to their health?

Seppelt: Oral-Turinabol, the substance at the heart of East Germany's state doping program, is still used in Russia today. So we can expect athletes in Russia to experience similar damage to their health in the future.

RFE/RL: Is Russia an exception, or is doping in sports the norm for most countries?

Seppelt: I don't think Russia is an exception. The picture is similar in many other countries, but maybe not on such a scale.

RFE/RL: The Russian Antidoping Agency has rejected the allegations made in your film as unfounded, and the head of the Russian Athletics Federation, Valentin Balakhnichev, has dismissed them as "a pack of lies." Is that the reaction you were expecting from Russia?

Seppelt: We've heard about it. I'm not sure whether the people who made these statements actually watched the film since it didn't simply make allegations, it presented evidence. And this evidence, in my opinion, leaves little space for doubt. For me this is part of the broader political dispute that we have seen in the past few months, in which everything is rejected and issues are not studied in detail. So I'm not surprised by such reactions in the Russian media.

RFE/RL: The World Antidoping Agency has pledged to investigate the allegations. What could be the potential consequences? Russia finished top of the medal table at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Could some athletes lose their Olympic medals, for instance, if they are proven to have used illegal substances?

Seppelt: According to the rules, an athlete who is proven to have doped cannot retain prizes obtained in the past 10 years. In that respect, it would be interesting watching how the International Olympic Committee will react to the case of [Russian athlete Maria] Savinova. Savinova has admitted doping in a mobile-phone interview. [Eds: Savinova, a middle-distance runner, won a gold medal in the 800-meter race at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.]

I believe there could be consequences for some trainers and officials. But they would be sacrificial pawns and would only deflect attention from the system, from the question of how to sports should be controlled from the outside.

We must ask ourselves how international organizations are influencing sports and how independent these organizations really are. This raises a huge question mark. The World Antidoping Agency has just announced that, in accordance with the rules, it had forwarded the information provided by whistle-blowers to the International Association of Athletics Federations [IAAF]. This is indicative, since at least one individual at the IAAF could be implicated in this corruption scandal. Sports rules must be revised.