The IOC has announced that 31 athletes in six sports and from 12 countries could be banned from the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro after their doping samples from the 2008 Beijing Games came back positive in retests.
Here are some questions and answers about the latest sports doping scandal:
Q: How can athletes be caught for doping so many years later?
A: The International Olympic Committee keeps all Olympic doping samples for possible retesting. Samples are frozen and stored at the anti-doping laboratory in Lausanne, Switzerland. The original statute of limitations for retesting was eight years, but that was extended to 10 years in 2015. The IOC can retest samples with new and improved techniques to catch cheats who escaped detection at the time. Normally, the IOC prefers to wait until near the deadline so that it can make use of the very latest testing methods. In this case, the IOC decided to test selected samples from Beijing to weed out any cheats before they got to Rio, using “the very latest scientific analysis methods.”
Q: Which athletes were caught in the Beijing retests?
A: We don’t know yet. The IOC did not identify the athletes, their sports or their nationalities, citing legal reasons. It said it will notify the 12 national Olympic committees involved “in the coming days” and that details “will follow in due course.” The IOC said it retested 454 samples and targeted athletes who “could potentially” compete in Rio. It’s possible names could start leaking out once the various national Olympic bodies and the athletes are informed. In the meantime, some athletes will be getting nervous.
Q: What action can the IOC take against the athletes?
A: If athletes are found guilty of doping, they will be banned from competing in Rio. In addition, they could be retroactively disqualified from the Beijing Games and stripped of their results and any medals. Any longer-term punishments and suspensions are up to the individual sports federations.
Q: What’s the process now?
A: The IOC has not yet laid out how the procedures will work. Normally, if athletes are accused of a doping violation at the Olympics, they are entitled to ask for testing of the backup “B” sample and a hearing is held. With the Rio Olympics starting on 5 August, the process will have to take place swiftly.
Q: What about samples from the 2012 London Olympics?
A: The IOC has also been reanalysing some London samples, with results of 250 retests “to come shortly.” Those tests, too, focused on athletes planning to compete in Rio. The IOC is also conducting a wider retesting of samples of medalists from Beijing and London, so there is the potential for a major reallocation of medals to come from both those games.
Q: Is this the first time this has happened?
A: No. The IOC has retested Olympic samples several times in the past. Five athletes were caught in retests of samples from the 2004 Athens Olympics, including men’s shot put winner Yuriy Bilonog of Ukraine. A few months after Beijing, the IOC reanalysed nearly 1,000 samples with a new test for the blood-boosting drug CERA. Five athletes were caught, including 1,500-metre gold medalist Rashid Ramzi of Bahrain. Nearly 500 doping samples from the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin have been retested. The IOC has not disclosed whether those retests had produced any positive cases. However, these latest retests have produced by far the highest number of positive cases.
Q: Will samples from the 2014 Sochi Winter Games be retested?
A: Yes. While the IOC could wait until 2024, it said it is taking “swift and decisive action” following allegations by former Russian lab director Grigory Rodchenkov that he was involved in state-sponsored doping in Sochi and manipulated samples to cover up cheating by Russian athletes, including 15 medalists. The IOC said it will work with the World Anti-Doping Agency to analyse Sochi samples “in the most sophisticated and efficient way possible.” It’s unclear what they might find, however, as Rodchenkov said he substituted tainted samples for clean ones.