Richard McLaren is no stranger to sports doping probes, having participated in Major League Baseball's inquiry into steroid use in 2007 and leading the investigation into alleged coverups by USA Track and Field after the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics.
Last December, the renowned international sports lawyer and Western University Faculty of Law professor agreed to join an independent commission appointed by the World Anti-Doping Agency to investigate allegations of widespread, systematic doping and coverups in Russian track and field.
After the release of Monday's report, which accused the Russian government of complicity in widespread doping and coverups by its track and field athletes, McLaren spoke to CBCSports.ca about his panel's findings, Russia's status for the 2016 Rio Olympics and how track and field's governing body should move forward.
CBCSports.ca: Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian president Vladimir Putin, said Tuesday that "as long as there is no evidence [of state-sponsored doping in Russia], it is difficult to consider the accusations, which appear rather unfounded." How do you respond to that?
McLaren: That doesn't surprise me. He and others have said that before. But I would expect that won't be the same refrain by the end of the week once they have a chance to study the report. When you draw the connections across the board about what's going on, you can't just say this is just a few isolated people or some of the old coaches dictating out of the Soviet era and nobody else.
Dmitry's correct. We don't have any evidence of a systematic, state-wide doping mechanism. If we did, we would have published it and so we have to go on the inference. But across a vast country [with] all sorts of different training camps, it has to be somehow state supported but we can't actually describe for you how that operates. We can only draw the inference. We've given them a chance to reform, so why don't you reform and join the rest of the world instead of fighting it.
CBCSports.ca: What would you consider an appropriate punishment for Russia's track and field federation and its athletes?
McLaren: I used to have arguments with Senator [George] Mitchell about that very point [while working on the baseball inquiry]. He made the point to me that he had done an investigation in northern Ireland, where the Protestants were killing the Catholics and the Catholics were killing the Protestants, and Catholics were killing Catholics and Protestants were killing Protestants. It was a mess.
The way to move forward is to draw the curtain and leave the past in the past and try to move forward. There's nothing about punishment in our report. We never were even thinking punishment.
CBCSports.ca: Should Russian track and field athletes be allowed to compete at the 2016 Olympics?
McLaren: If they change [their ways], by all means. They're an important sporting nation. They're good at track and they're good at field events, too. But they can't compete the way they are right now. That's our view.
We discussed [as a panel] that even though [the report] may affect those [athletes] who are clean — I'm not sure there are many of those in Russia — in order to cause the change that's necessary here, you may have to affect those people. That's life, sometimes.
CBCSports.ca: During Monday's news conference, independent commission president Dick Pound said entire athletics teams from Russia were able to avoid competition testing. Was that the most stunning finding during your investigation?
McLaren: That's one of them. That was the race-walking team. But look at it from the athlete's point of view. What choice did they have? You just [avoid testing] and then you're told we do it because everyone else in the world does it. But that's not the case that everybody else in the world does it, but that's truly what they believe if you talk to Russian athletes. That's what they're constantly told. And remember, it's a closed society. They don't have the access to information that we have.
The scale of corruption itself was also startling. I can't touch on too much of that because we're withholding that information because of the criminal investigation, but it's much greater than I would have imagined.
CBCSports.ca: What do you think the findings of your report tell us about the state of track and field, and sports in general?
McLaren: I think the public's getting fed up with all of this [doping and corruption] information coming out in cycling, soccer and track and field. It just doesn't seem to stop and I think they're getting somewhat immune to it.
CBCSports.ca: Is progress being made?
McLaren: I would like to think so because I'm an optimist. There are a number of studies that suggest that the level of doping in many sports is between 10 and 20 per cent of the athletes at the top level that are competing. The labs are actually catching somewhere between half a per cent and three per cent of the samples that they analyze. There's quite a disconnect. It's hard to understand why that's the case but that suggests that doping in sport is more prevalent that we're catching and even that we're prepared to admit. And in Russia the scale is much greater.
CBCSports.ca: What would you say to athletes across the world that have competed drug-free the past 10, 20 years?
McLaren: I would say to them, to the extent they know something's going on with respect to their competitors, they ought to report it. But that's not the tradition in sport. The tradition in sport is silence and deny, deny, deny. Most athletes in our investigation refused [to call out athletes]. They didn't want to lose their chance at being on the national or international stage. We could offer them reductions in sanctions if they provide us substantial assistance. But they have to make that decision. We have some athletes who did and we've got a lot of evidence.
CBCSports.ca: How would you advise the IAAF (track and field's world governing body) to move forward?
McLaren: The next steps are more likely to be to take the doping systems out of the international federations and put it into independent organizations, whether that's WADA or some other [governing] body. When I was working on the baseball inquiry with Senator Mitchell that's exactly what we recommended that baseball do. They have not done that. One of the things [IAAF] president Sebastian Coe has said is that [the IAAF] may well outsource their entire doping control to an independent agency.