Are Russian authorities ready to cooperate in drug scandal investigation?

LAUSANNE, Switzerland -- Prof. Richard McLaren has been involved in some of the most high-profile sports doping investigations and cases in the world, including baseball's 2007 Mitchell Report on performance-enhancing drug use. But nothing compares to the vortex he entered in late 2014, when he began a two-year odyssey through the Russian doping scandal.

McLaren, a longtime arbitrator on the Court of Arbitration for Sport who teaches law at Western University in Ontario, Canada, was part of a World Anti-Doping Agency-supported independent commission that investigated doping and corruption in the Russian track and field federation, then headed a deeper probe of the Russian system that produced a two-part report in 2016. His findings sparked alarm and outrage among many athletes and national anti-doping officials. WADA and the International Olympic Committee split over how to handle the aftermath. The IOC allowed most Russian athletes to compete at the Rio 2016 Games -- over WADA's objections -- weeks after Part I of McLaren's damning report. Two separate IOC commissions are doing their own reviews of his findings.

Russian authorities have vehemently disputed McLaren's description of organized doping there as state-sponsored, even as they have issued more conciliatory statements in recent weeks and months. That duality was on display at the annual WADA symposium Monday in Lausanne, as new Russian Minister of Sport Pavel Kolobkov assailed the credibility of key McLaren witness Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov while stating that Russia is "ready to cooperate'' and outlining reform measures. senior writer Bonnie D. Ford sat down with McLaren directly afterward. These are excerpts from that interview:

What did you think of what you just heard from the minister?

I was encouraged by what he had to say, in that they seem to be edging slowly toward greater admission or acceptance of the fact that there were serious problems in the doping community, within their institutions. I think that's a positive step, and it went one step further, the way I heard it, from what the president of the Russian Federation said last week. So that's good.

But there was still a great deal of [criticism], hitting the evidence in your report, saying it was insufficient, attacking Rodchenkov.

I was a member of the independent commission [chaired by former WADA president and IOC member Richard Pound], and we did not rely on evidence that was provided by Rodchenkov. We weren't looking for anything related to an overall structure. We were examining what was going on in athletics, primarily in Russia, and once we started to learn more about what was going on in athletics, we then started tracking over to the international federation. That's when the bribery and corruption came to light, both outside the country and within Russia. In the meantime, his situation changed greatly. He is now [a] resident in the United States. He is now under investigation by the FBI. So I think he runs a serious risk that if he tells me things that are not truthful, he won't be [a] resident in the United States any more. That's a very powerful incentive to tell the truth. The independent scientific/forensic evidence is objective, can be verified and corroborates what he had to say. We can verify a lot of what he had to tell us by the other work that we did, cross-examination of others and other forensic evidence that corroborates. People have to remember: I guess many people aren't truthful all the time, but even the most serious criminal does tell the truth from time to time.

A follow-up on the scratches and marks [evidence of tampering on sample bottles]: That was also mentioned by President Putin in his remarks, which seemed to imply some kind of challenge of the forensic investigation you did.

When the samples arrived at the lab in Sochi, they were examined to see if they'd been tampered [with] visually. When we did our examination, we had to have an expert do it; we had to first of all conduct an experiment that [breaking into "tamper-proof" bottles] could actually happen, that this could occur, because we didn't have anybody who had ever seen it happen. Then we noted the scratches and marks by microscopic examination. The fact that the procedure that was followed at Sochi didn't reveal anything doesn't surprise me in the least. They didn't check for what we checked for. All that went on was demonstrated by our expert in front of me. I had the opportunity to examine what he was doing and ask questions about it.

Is there still too much emphasis on, "Why aren't there more [individual doping cases] coming out of this report?"

The report was intended to determine whether there was a system in Sochi and also in the Moscow lab, and if there was, how did it operate? We did name people that we saw from the information and interviews and database we had in the report. But we didn't name them for the purposes of determining that they were guilty of anything or had committed an anti-doping rules violation. We didn't look at Russian officials to determine whether they were guilty or what their responsibilities were that they may have violated. We looked at their role in the system. That was all I was asked to do, and I did that. Now, the IOC disciplinary commissions are in pursuit, particularly the one about Russian officials, of the assignment of guilt. They're trying to use the report for something it was never intended to be and wasn't part of my mandate. They're free to do what they wish in terms of that disciplinary commission, and we'll certainly cooperate where we can.

Have the [IOC's] Schmid and Oswald Commissions interviewed you?

Nobody has interviewed me. We've had a reasonable level of contact with the Oswald Commission, and it's ongoing. We've agreed to take some further steps for them, just today. With the Schmid Commission, of course, they had the very unfortunate problem with [former chair] Justice Canivet due to illness. He had to step down and was replaced by Mr. Schmid, that delayed things. They did make an inquiry of us. The document that was the base of that inquiry was then leaked [via hackers] into the press. I've asked for an explanation of that and heard nothing about that. Until I hear why that occurred, I won't be providing anything to them because they can't be sure it would be secure.

Which document?

There was a document prepared that was the base on which a number of questions were posed to us about all sorts of different evidence and individuals. We answered them to the extent we could, and returned that very document with our own comments on it. We did that over the Christmas period at their request so they could get started on Jan. 6. So they had the material. They haven't come back to me with any questions about that whatsoever. The only thing that's happened since is one letter of correspondence from Mr. Schmid to which I have replied.

Do you find that surprising after months in which you were pressured to release your findings earlier?

One of the whole purposes of the website and putting evidence up was because of the way they reacted in July. We elected to put all the evidence that we could -- because it's not all there -- on the website, for everybody to look at, and [posted] the original versions in Russian. We also [posted] our working translations, which were fit for purpose for what we were doing. They're not official translations that you would require in a court proceeding. That's a whole different matter.

The language that changed between Part I and Part II of your report -- the difference between "state-run/state-sponsored" and "institutional conspiracy" -- why did you choose that language, and did you mean for there to be such a close parsing of that?

I did, and I did it deliberately. I had meetings with Russian officials, and their view of what is a "state-sponsored" system -- and you heard it from the minister himself -- is the inner circle that surrounds the president of the Russian Federation. The evidence I had stopped at the Ministry of Sport -- mainly at the deputy minister but also at the minister himself. We don't have anything beyond that. Having listened carefully to what the Russians said to me, I said, "Well, all right, I understand that's your version, that may not be how I would define state-sponsored," but I was prepared to describe it in a different way, and I chose to describe it as a central institutionalized manipulation and conspiracy. That's just a different label. The facts never changed. The facts in July were amplified further with more information by December, so all we're talking about is a vocabulary issue.

As you released Part II, you called for an end to infighting between the organizations touching this issue. How do you think that's going?

I would say it's going very badly. I think it's time to say everybody's on the same path here, and we need to get together, get to the bottom of this and fix it and move on. It's my view that there are far too much politics going on between these organizations, and they need to sit down and talk to each other. But they have to do it. I can't force them to do it. I just observe it.

Has this been a completely thankless task? If you were asked to do it again, would you?

I would, because I think the athletes thank me. I did it for them. They're the people who are forgotten in this problem that is going on these days. I think it's a very important thing to do. I'm also keen to see Russia, which is a great, athletic nation, be an honest and fair competitor, which I think they want to do too. All these comments that have come from the president and the minister are directed at trying to get back inside the tent. And the international sporting community, I think, wants them to get back inside. The question is: How do you get there and under what terms?