Russia in spotlight over anti-doping fight
The speed-skating venue at the Olympic Park in Adler, Russia on February 21, 2013. Russia, long described as a black spot in world anti-doping, remains a concern as the clock ticks down to the start of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
At issue is how much confidence can be placed in the Russian authorities in such a sensitive area while the list of the country's athletes who have tested positive for banned substances and sanctioned is growing.
Amid continued suspicions about the continued use of methods inherited from the old Soviet Union, several voices spoke out at the executive committee meeting of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in September last year.
But Richard Budgett, medical and scientific director of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), told AFP in an interview: "I am quite happy to say that a lot of progress has been made in the past six months."
During a visit to Russia in March, Budgett, who won rowing gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, said he was "impressed" by the willingness not only of the Sochi organising committee but also the Russian anti-doping agency to tackle the issue.
"People can say the anti-doping could be better but the whole point of having the Games is that it stimulates, it is inspiration to make the anti-doping programme much better," said the British doctor, who was chief medical officer at London 2012.
Sochi, like every city that has hosted the Olympics recently, will have its own dedicated anti-doping laboratory.
The facility is currently under construction but promises to be equipped with the most up-to-date equipment, replicating a new lab in Moscow which is one of WADA's 35 accredited centres around the world.
The focus, however, is less on the laboratory analysis but the tests themselves.
The IOC is increasing testing from one Games to the next and can rely on more and more effective methods of detection.
What is required is that the tests are done properly, especially in the weeks leading up to the competition, which is the most preferred time for taking banned substances rather than during the event.
At the end of 2008, the former medical director of the IOC, Patrick Schamasch, alluded to Russia by mentioning a country "where no testing is possible and where the life of anti-doping testers is in danger".
Some at WADA would like foreign testers to be able to have multiple entry visas so that they are not automatically identified as soon as they step foot on Russian soil.
If international sporting federations, which are responsible for testing outside the Games, want to undertake random testing on their athletes who train in Russia, the best way is to appeal to the Russian anti-doping agency, said Budgett.
He said that RUSADA has more than 50 well-trained staff and should have double that between now and the end of the year.
During his visit, he discussed with customs and police authorities about their role in the fight against dope cheats.
Such partnerships are often difficult to establish as countries are generally very reluctant to share information with a private international body like the IOC.
But Budgett insisted that a form of collaboration can be established.
"One thing which we're more and more interested in is all the intelligence testing and making sure we get all the intelligence that we can from border agencies, from law enforcement," he said.
"We talked about that two weeks ago and both agencies -- the customs and the law enforcement agents -- they will communicate with the sport ministry in Russia, which will then contact RUSADA.
"We will be meeting with RUSADA and Sochi 2014 on a daily basis, defining exactly who we are going to test and fine-tuning the whole programme to make it as intelligent and as big a deterrent as possible.
"The whole point of this is that the majority of athletes who are competing clean can do so in the confidence that anyone who dares to cheat is very likely to be caught," Budgett said.
For Russia, having the Games at home will leave a lasting change on the fight against doping, he added.
"I think one of the legacies of the Games will be nearly 100 well-trained, experienced doping control officers in RUSADA after the Games. It will be quite a legacy," he said.