What the McLaren Report Means for Swimming

Russian Doping Control Sign.jpg

By now, most of you will have heard of the McLaren report.  This is the report requested by WADA and prepared by Richard McLaren, a Canadian law professor, to look into the state-run Russian doping allegations.

However, none of the articles I’ve read have really looked into what it specifically means for swimming.


McLaren Report

Here’s a very brief review of the report (and yes, I actually read all 97 pages).

Under normal operations, and against all rules, the Moscow Anti-Doping Laboratory staff notified the Ministry of Sport of any positive A samples. The Ministry then broke rules and determined which athlete the sample belonged to, and then either gave a SAVE order (falsely report the sample as negative) or a QUARANTINE order (continue with analysis as usual). McLaren refers to this as the Disappearing Positive Methodology.

For special events such as the Sochi Winter Olympics where there were too many international staff about to carry out the above, the lab staff carried out a urine sample switch for Russian athletes that literally involved stealing sample A urine samples and passing them through a hole in the wall, where the urine sample was replaced with clean urine and then put back into the system.

A total of 643 positive test results were found by McLaren’s team in the system.  There are undoubtedly many more that the team hasn’t found yet, or won’t find because records have been destroyed.

Of these 643 positive tests, 577 were identified as Russian athletes.  The Ministry gave SAVE orders for 312 (54%), and QUARANTINE orders for 265 (46%).  The report further found that SAVE orders were given for athletes who either won medals, or were considered athletes of promise.  Russian athletes without sufficient promise were not protected.

Of the 66 foreign positive tests, only 8 were given SAVE orders, while 58 were given QUARANTINE orders.

There remained one huge area of concern for the Russians, and that involved the warehousing of the A samples. The Ministry of Sport was well aware that any retesting of samples would easily expose the deception.  So when WADA informed the Ministry of a surprise visit to the Moscow lab, the lab was promptly informed and they destroyed 1417 samples. However, they missed 37 samples, so these samples were then replaced using samples from clean athletes, and then altered to roughly match the chemistry of the original sample. WADA eventually recovered these samples. Testing by another lab easily uncovered the sloppy deception.

The bottom line: if you were a promising Russian athlete, you were safe even if you testing positive.  Hence the name, the Disappearing Positive Methodology.


Impact on Swimming

The report also gives a breakdown of which sports were affected.

Athletics were highest with 139 positives. (This explains the early emphasis on Russian doping in athletics!)  Then weightlifting with 117.  In terms of Olympics sports swimming came in 7th with 18 positives.


If we use the 54%/46% SAVE vs QUARANTINE ratio for the whole group, then these 18 swimming positive A samples would result in 10 of them being reported as negative.

To put this in perspective, in the years of 2001-2013, FINA data shows that France had the highest number of doping suspensions at 29, Brazil at 28, and then Russia 27.  Add 10 more positives and this would have put them clearly at the top of the FINA doping list.


Even more importantly, in 2014 Russian Swimming (and a few other Russian sports) were put on notice that one or two more positive tests could mean the sport would receive a national suspension. This would mean they wouldn’t be able to participate in any international events.  This Disappearing Positive Methodology was actually crucial for Russian sports to continue competing on the world scene.

OK, so we’ve established that the Russians were cheating on a national-wide scale.  What impact will this have on swimming at the Rio Olympics?

The reality is that this really won’t have a huge effect in the swimming competitions.  While Russia used to be a real swimming powerhouse, their recent ratings have definitely suffered. As of July 19, 2016 there are only three Olympic events with a Russian swimmer ranked in the top 3: Evgeny Rylov ranked 3rd in Men’s 200 Backstroke; and Yulia Efimova ranked 2nd in both Women’s Breaststrokes.

Even if we extend this to Top 16, we still only have 9 ranked men and 7 ranked women.  That represents only 3.8% of the Top 16 positions for the 26 individual events. In other words, the presence or absence of the Russians probably won’t have a large impact on swimming.

Of far more importance to the athletes and the public, however, will be the psychological impact if Russian athletes are allowed to compete beside clean athletes. This could only send a message that doping isn’t taken seriously, and there are few downsides.  And that would be terrible for our sport.

It’s also interesting to note that the 2015 Kazan World Aquatics Championships took place in mid-2015, essentially during the dismantling of the Disappearing Positive Methodology. The McLaren report makes no mention of data from that event.


Comparison to East Germany

It’s inevitable that this Russian state-run system would be compared to the East German state-run Plan 14.25.  However, beyond the state-wide aspect, the comparisons really are actually quite weak.  The East Germans more or less used their athletes as guinea pigs, experimenting with whatever drug cocktails they thought might work.  And the health fallout decades later has been catastrophic (see here).

This Russian system doesn’t appear to be looking at anything like that kind of abuse of the athlete’s health. In fact, the former head of the  Moscow labs, Dr. Rodchenkov,  overhauled the haphazard doping approach present in the Russian system prior to 2010. In that old system, individual coaches used whatever doping substances they liked, resulting in inconsistent results and uncertain detection windows.

Dr. Rodchenkov developed a new steroid cocktail optimized to avoid detection.  This standardized approach at least prevented some of the wild experimentation that was a hallmark of the East German system.

In reality, this state-run system is probably much closer to the state-run system in China in the mid-1990s (and possibly much much later). Although we don’t know a lot about their system, we do know that it was pervasive, well-orchestrated, and hidden from the rest of the world.


IOC Ruling

After reviewing the McLaren Report, the IOC has indicated great distress at learning about the Russian doping system (despite the first inklings being known way back in 2014), and so they’ve established a committee to look into it.  With the Olympics mere weeks away, this committee will definitely have to move quickly if any mass suspension is involved.

In one sense, it’s almost inconceivable that the IOC could NOT suspend Russia.  However, these large organizations don’t always work that way.  In 2014 FINA was very aware of allegations of a state-run doping system in Russia, and yet they not only continued with the 2015 World Aquatics Championships in Kazan, but awarded President Putin with FINA’s highest honour, the FINA Order, presented to “individuals of high dignity, who have achieved remarkable merit in the world of Aquatics.”

We’re at a turning point regarding doping.  Let’s hope the IOC does the right thing.


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