Some Insight Into the Sports-Doping Epidemic in the Former Soviet Union

The Russian national flag (R) and the Olympic flag are seen during the closing ceremony for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, R
The Russian national flag (R) and the Olympic flag are seen during the closing ceremony for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Russia, February 23, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Young/File Photo

Russia's use of state-sponsored doping to try to resurrect the glory of Soviet athletics has backfired, with its track and field athletes becoming the first entire team ever banned from the Olympics.

But Russia isn't the only country in the region to go into overdrive on performance-enhancing drugs. This kind of cheating is rampant across the former Soviet Union.

All four of the Kazakh gold-medal winners in weightlifting at the 2012 Olympics were stripped of their titles for doping this month, turning the country's elation into international humiliation. And one of the four, Ilya Ilyin, has also failed a 2008 Olympics doping retest, meaning his will lose his gold from those Games as well.

Even Armenia, never an athletic powerhouse, has felt the doping sting. The first Armenian woman ever to win an Olympic weightlifting medal will lose her bronze from the London Games and be banned from August's Rio Games.

With the penalties so devastating, why is doping such a scourge in the former Soviet Union?

A key reason is that many countries in the region cling to the notion that athletic prowess is a measure of their worth -- or, in the case of Russia, their supposed superiority.

Russia has suffered three doping body blows in the past eight months.

The first was a World Anti-Doping Agency report in November of 2015 documenting systemic state-sponsored doping in Russia. This included evidence that the successor to the KGB, the FSB, concocted an elaborate scheme to swap clean urine samples for Russian athletes' dope-laced samples at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.

The second doping body blow to Russian athletics was a damning follow-up report this month on whether the country was addressing the doping problem. It concluded that the state had continued to cover up violations rather than clean house.

One finding was that the FSB had threatened the Westerners who had replaced the Russian dope testers the World Anti-Doping Agency fired. But there were many more findings, including that Russian athletes literally ran from track-and-field competition venues when learning that Western dope testers were there.

The third -- and worst -- doping body blow against Russia was the International Olympic Committee's announcement this month that Russia's attitude toward doping was so incorrigible that the country's entire track and field team would be banned from the Rio Games.

The Russian reaction to these blows was predictable -- and laughable.

The first thread of the response was invoking that tired old mantra the Russians use whenever they're caught with their pants down -- that the doping findings were a fabricated Western effort to discredit Russia.

The second thread of the Russian response was to trot out that other wheezing horse that Moscow also fields whenever it's caught cheating -- the contention hat everyone else cheats, so it's unfair to single out Russia.

The problem is that a country-by-country compilation of international doping violations since 2013 shows that Russia has been far and away the world's biggest doping cheat, accounting for a full 12 percent of the entire world's violations.

The third thread of the Russian response to the cheating has been for Russian officials all the way to President Vladimir Putin himself to cry crocodile tears for the country's athletes, whining that a ban on Russia's entire track and field team at Rio would be unfair to clean athletes.

The pity-the-clean-competitors ploy has failed to move the rest of the world, given that the Russian state planned and coordinated the doping in the first place.

It's obvious to anyone who has watched Putin try to resurrect Russia's great-power status that he toolkit includes athletics. As a KGB officer, he saw the Soviets spare no effort to create sports teams that were so dominant that they could convince the world of the superiority of the Soviet system.

As a small country, Kazakhstan knows it would be silly to try to use its athletic achievements to create the impression that it has a superior political system.

Its goal has been more modest: to parlay its teams' successes into earning a place on the international stage that is loftier than a country of 17 million should command. And the petroleum-rich nation has succeeded. The four gold medals that its weightlifters grabbed at the London Olympics startled the world, and had people back in Kazakhstan gushing with pride.

The news this month that the four doped at the 2012 Games has tarnished the image that Kazakhstan has carefully cultivated for two decades -- that of a country whose wise leadership has enabled it to "punch above its weight" on the international stage.

News of the doping came at a bad time for the country. The worldwide drop in the price of oil -- the mainstay of Kazakhstan's economy -- has led to many people losing their jobs.

Nationwide demonstrations were held in May against a government plan to increase the length of time that foreigners can lease Kazakh land from 10 to 25 years -- a rejiggering that many Kazakhs believe could lead to millions of Chinese flooding into their country. And a terrorist attack and police response claimed 19 lives in Aktobe this month.

The 2012 weightlifting golds had helped Kazakhs take their minds off the slew of troubles the country has faced the past few years -- and now those medals are an illusion.

Doping has also shattered Armenians' hopes for a breakthrough gold medal in the Rio Games.

Hripsime Khurshudyan became the first Armenian woman to win a weightlifting medal at an Olympics when she took a bronze at the 2012 Games in London.

Hopes that she could win a gold medal at Rio in August were shattered when the World Anti-Doping Agency announced this month that a retesting of her urine sample from the 2008 Olympics indicated she had doped. That will cost her both her bronze at the 2012 Games and her chance to compete at Rio.

As the Russian, Kazakhstan and Armenian cases show, there is a mentality across the former Soviet Union that it's worth risking doping to reap the rewards you can obtain from Olympic medals.

Such medals can accord athletes hero status and a top standard of living. Coaches who condone or actively push doping can win fame and fortune with medal-heavy teams. And countries can become the envy of the world by fielding teams that dominate the Olympics.

The problem is that far too many of the cheaters -- including the government officials who facilitate doping -- are getting caught.

The result is the polar opposite of what the cheaters hope for: embarrassment, humiliation and devastation. And that goes for athletes, coaches and governments alike.

Armine Sahakyan is a human rights activist based in Armenia. A columnist with the Kyiv Post and a blogger with The Huffington Post, she writes on human rights and democracy in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Follow her on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/ArmineSahakyann