Before Susan Dunklee became the first U.S. woman to win an individual medal in a world championship biathlon race, she spent years training 18 to 25 hours each week in the summer and racing about 35 times during the winter to fine-tune her athletic abilities.
“We do two workouts a day, a mix of skiing, running, biking, to break down the muscles over and over and let them build back up,” Dunklee said via Skype from a training camp in Germany. “But there’s only a certain level you can push your body before working harder isn’t going to help you. You have to recover.”
That’s where doping comes in. Cheaters use steroids, testosterone, EPO and other performance-enhancing drugs in part to help their bodies recover faster.
“People think about doping and they think they’re taking it during the race so they’ll get an advantage and that’s true, but you also have to think about the summer months. If they’re cheating, it allows them to put a huge, bigger training foundation down,” Dunklee said.
So when it was reported that Russian agents tampered with urine samples to cover up doping by biathletes, cross country skiers and others at the Sochi Olympics, Dunklee said she was “a little bit angry, but also pretty sad.”
“It’s painful to know it’s not a level playing field,” she said. “And it’s painful to know that there’s people who are stuck in a system that from the top down is forcing athletes into this illicit sort of scenario. It’s unhealthy for everyone involved.”
Russia won 33 medals — a record 13 gold — at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, compared with 15 medals — three gold — at the 2010 Vancouver Games. In Sochi, Russia won four medals in biathlon, and five in cross-country skiing.
Cross-country skiers and biathletes from Norway, Germany and other countries also have tested positive over the years, but no nation has had an organized doping program to compare with what Russia is accused of conducting.
Lowell Bailey, a member of the U.S. Olympic Biathlon team since 2006, said the news was “the most shocking thing that has occurred in my athletic career.”
“When you put your entire life’s work into something under the assumption that you are operating by the same rules as everyone else on that field of play, and when you find out, no, that’s not the case, there’s a mix of anger, frustration, sadness,” Bailey, the first American biathlete to win a gold medal at the world championships, said.
That’s why Bailey and Dunklee, the first athletes named to the 2018 U.S. Olympic team, as well as ski coaches and the heads of two winter organizations want Russia barred from the next Winter Games.
“If you chose to cheat at the Olympic level, and put banned substances into your blood so you can gain an advantage, I really don’t see any place for that person in the Olympic movement,” Bailey said.
Bailey finished eighth in the individual event in Sochi. Russian won bronze. Dunklee finished 11th in the mass start. Six Russian cross-country skiers and a Russian biathlete were suspended after Sochi but no decision has been made for the next games.
Richard McLaren, commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Association to investigate Russian doping, said his findings “confirmed the existence of widespread cheating through the use of doping substances and methods to ensure, or enhance the likelihood of, victory for athletes and teams.”
McLaren’s first report came out just before the Rio Olympics. International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach allowed individual athletic federations to choose how to handle the Russians, with most allowing them to compete. The International Association of Athletics Federation banned Russia’s track and field team, but athletes who could prove they were clean were let in as “neutral athletes.”
Bach says he won’t decide whether Russia can compete in Pyeongchang until he gets the results from two new commissions he set up last year. He defended his position during a recent press conference by saying more information is needed.
“Before you suspend an athlete, before you sanction an athlete you have to prove that he or she has committed an anti-doping rule violation,” he said.
In the documentary “Icarus,” released by Netflix last month, former Moscow Laboratory director Grigory Rodchenkov describes how Russia devised a way to open sample bottles, dump tainted urine and replace the caps. When Rodchenkov escaped to the U.S., he provided lists of athletes involved in the scam as well as emails among Russian officials discussing the drug protocols.
Bach’s commissions have not met with Rodchenkov to take his testimony, according to a letter acquired by The Associated Press that was sent by Rodchenkov’s lawyer to the World Anti-Doping Agency. Rodchenkov offered his help and the panels only recently contacted him to set up an interview — more than a year after starting their work.
Bach’s position frustrates the U.S. winter sports world.
“If you prove that an entire Olympic organization was responsible for a state-run doping program across virtually all their Olympic sports and then you do little or nothing about it in terms of punishment, what precedent does that set for the future of Olympic sport?” Bailey asked. “It basically says you can get away with the worst doping scandal in history and not have any negative repercussions.”
Tiger Shaw, president of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, and Max Cobb, president of the U.S. Biathlon Association, also are calling for the IOC to ban Russia from the Pyeongchang Olympics.
“When you have our International Olympic Committee commissioning additional studies, questioning its own regulatory body, WADA, you wonder, really, who’s controlling all of this? What’s the motivation there?” Shaw asked. “The investigation has been done. It’s conclusive.”