Inside the cramped storage rooms of Moscow’s antidoping laboratory, the crates of blood and urine samples are stacked to the ceiling, each one neatly labeled and sealed with a tamper-proof lid. The lab’s acting director, Marina Dikunets, lowers her voice to a solemn half-whisper as she shows visitors around, taking care to avoid a small refrigerator in a corner of the room. Chained shut and padlocked, it contains the samples of 40 athletes who tested positive for doping during the 2014 Sochi Games. “I try to stay as far away from that fridge as possible,” she says.
It’s hard to blame her. The little bottles inside have come to represent a fundamental flaw in the system designed to guard against doping and, by extension, to maintain public trust in the integrity of sports. In a report released on July 16, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) confirmed that the urine bottles are hardly tamper proof. During the Sochi Games, an agent of the Russian state security service, known as the FSB, was able to unseal the bottles and replace the urine of athletes who had been doping with clean urine in order to fool Olympic drug tests, according to the WADA report.
This trick was at the core of a state-sponsored doping conspiracy, whose discovery led the IOC to rule on July 24 that Russian athletes would not be allowed to compete in Rio unless they could convince their individual sports federations that they were innocent. Though that falls short of the outright ban many antidoping officials had demanded, no Russian athlete will escape suspicion.
But the implications of the findings go far beyond the upcoming Olympics. WADA’s entire system relies on the impenetrability of these little bottles. Under the agency’s rules, each country’s antidoping authority is obligated to store them for 10 years, providing a time-stamped record that was meant to be inviolable. Discovering that the bottles can be manipulated puts into question every medal ever won at an international competition. It means athletes will find it much harder to prove that their urine samples, locked away in storage rooms for years, had never been tampered with.
As Scott Blackmun, the head of the U.S. Olympic Committee, put it after the tampering first came to light, “We are at a defining moment for international sport.” He added, “Doping is a problem all around the world, not just in Russia.”
That had been clear well before the disclosure of Russia’s cheating. Kenyan athletes, who have dominated long-distance running for years, are also at risk of being banned from Rio after more than 40 failed drug tests in the past five years. In Brazil, the official antidoping lab lost its WADA accreditation in June because of undisclosed failures to conform with standards. The lab was only allowed to resume taking blood and urine tests on July 20, two weeks before the opening ceremony.
Whether these moves can restore faith in the world of international sports is an open question that will hang heavy over Rio.
–With reporting by Eva Hartog/Moscow
This appears in the August 08, 2016 issue of TIME.