The global regulator of drugs in sports on Thursday voted to allow Russia to resume testing its athletes for performance-enhancing drugs, despite an outcry from athletes and watchdogs that the country has not done enough to clean up its record of corruption in competitions.
Russia will now be able to certify that its athletes are not using illicit drugs, allowing them easier entry to a range of competitions, and issue what are known as therapeutic use exemptions, which permit athletes to use certain prohibited drugs for medical reasons.
The executive board of the World Anti-Doping Agency made the move despite a series of independent investigations that found Russia had orchestrated a vast, state-sponsored doping scheme that tainted the Olympics and other major sports events.
It comes at time of mounting skepticism about the fairness of international sports competitions as the pervasiveness of performance-enhancing drugs continues. Athletes continue to say they do not have faith that their competitors are not doping and that governing bodies of their sports have failed to ensure the integrity of the competition, even at the highest profile events like the Olympics.
The decision clears Russia to start hosting international sports events again. In addition, it paves the way for Russian athletes to begin competing under their own flag in every sport. Russia’s track and field atheltes may now be welcomed back at all international events. The I.A.A.F., track and field’s world governing body, has refused to accept Russian athletes while the country’s anti-doping agency was not considered in compliance with WADA standards.
Minutes after Russia was cleared by WADA, the organizers of the European Games, a multi-sport event, named the Russian city of Kazan to a shortlist of three to host the event in 2023.
WADA’s board voted 9-2, with one abstention, to reinstate Russia’s antidoping agency, which had been banned since 2015 after investigators found it was at the center of the doping conspiracy at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
The conspiracy included, among other methods, substituting clean urine for tainted samples through a hidden hole in the wall at the agency’s testing laboratory in Sochi. The lab was guarded by members of Russia’s state security services, according to the investigations.
The doping conspiracy led the International Olympic Committee to ban Russia from the Winter Olympics earlier this year in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Nearly 170 Russian athletes ultimately participated through special dispensations from the international sports federations. But Russia’s National Olympic Committee was prohibited from attending. The Russian flag was not officially displayed and the athletes had to wear neutral uniforms with “Olympic Athlete from Russia” printed on them.
After the Games, Russia continued to deny the state had sponsored the doping and it declined to give investigators access to its testing labs and possibly tainted urine samples. Russia, in an agreement with WADA, was supposed to admit to the doping scheme and turn over data and samples before the agency reinstated it.
After negotiations between Russian officials and leaders of international sports organizations, however, a WADA committee had unexpectedly recommended the reinstatement on Friday. The full board, meeting in the Seychelles, affirmed it.
The organization backed off insisting that Russia accept the findings of an investigation by Richard McLaren, which laid out evidence of a state-supported doping program that had helped the country win Olympic medals at the Winter Games it hosted in Sochi. Instead, WADA asked Russia to accept the less harsh findings on the government’s role in what is known as the Schmid report, produced by an I.O.C. commission.
Pavel Kolobkov, Russia’s sports minister, said in a letter to WADA that his government accepted the findings of the Schmid report and agreed to turn over data and stored samples from Russian athletes, without committing to a date.
WADA’s president, Craig Reedie, said that the reinstatement came with “strict conditions” and that Russia could be ruled noncompliant again if it failed to follow a timeline for allowing access to Russian data and samples.
The decision brought renewed criticism of WADA, which had angered athletes and other antidoping officials by softening some of the demands it made of Russia.
Travis Tygart, chief executive of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, called the decision a “a devastating blow to the world’s clean athletes.”
Tygart and other antidoping leaders and athletes critical of the decision said going back on the so-called “road map” for Russia’s reinstatement was akin to putting the desires of sports officials and a powerful nation above the rights of clean athletes.
Tygart vowed to use the decision to build momentum for a significant reformation of WADA so the organization does not include representatives form sports organizations. The world’s athletes “want a WADA with teeth, authority, sanctioning power and the determination to get the job done of cleaning up sport and restoring the trust of the billions of sports fans and athletes worldwide.”
Beckie Scott, a former cross country skier from Canada, resigned from the WADA compliance review committee after it endorsed readmitting the Russian antidoping authorities. After the decision Thursday, Scott told the CBC: “I’m profoundly disappointed. I feel this was an opportunity for WADA and they have dealt a devastating blow to clean sport. I’m quite dismayed.”
Reedie told the BBC before the vote on Thursday: “I think it’s entirely within the road map that was specified. The second condition still requires a copy of the database and raw data to come to us. If they don’t deliver, they won’t be compliant.”
But many athletes and officials expressed dismay.
In a statement, UK Sport, the United Kingdom’s government agency charged with the development of elite athletes, said it was disappointed in the decision. “We call on WADA to fully and transparently explain how it came to the compromise of reinstating Russia – and how it will ensure that the new conditions are fully met and implemented. A strong WADA and a unified anti-doping community are vital to the integrity of sport and to ensure public trust and support is maintained.”
Ahead of the decision, in an opinion article in The New York Times, Edwin Moses, the former hurdling star and chairman of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, said, “Having spoken to athletes, I know they overwhelmingly support the right decision being made in the Seychelles — they overwhelmingly support WADA’s sticking to its road map.”
Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the whistle blower who revealed Russia’s doping program, urged against the decision in an opinion article published by USA Today. “WADA must not fall prey to manipulation and false assertions from the ministry, the same arm of the Kremlin that facilitated the doping program and asserted false compliance,” Rodchenkov wrote. “To do so, would be nothing short of a catastrophe for clean sport.”
His lawyer, Jim Walden, said after the decision: “WADA’s decision to reinstate Russia represents the greatest treachery against clean athletes in Olympic history.”
Linda Helleland, of Norway, a vice president of WADA, had announced before the decision that she would vote no. “As long as the McLaren Report is not acknowledged and WADA still has no access to the laboratories, I will vote against the reinstatement of Russia,” she said.