Rio Olympics: German reporter gets police protection after doping revelations

By Ana Ribeiro

Hajo Seppelt’s continuing investigation into athletes’ doping practices has posed a potential danger to him during the Olympics in Brazil. The journalist, who works for German broadcaster ARD, has confirmed to Deutsche Welle that he has been “under the protection of two members of the elite troop of Rio de Janeiro's military police.”

Screenshot_Hajo Seppelt Screenshot from Hajo Seppelt's website,

“The 53-year-old reporter has received an increasing number of threats - sometimes delivered via Twitter and YouTube - from Russia but more recently from Kenya,” according to the same Deutsche Welle report. Seppelt is very active on his Twitter account, which is almost exclusively dominated by doping-related news.

Seppelt had been seen with bodyguards in Vienna back in June, also reporting on the unfolding doping scandal he had exposed. On that occasion, he was covering the suspension of Russian athletes from the Rio Olympics.

The international doping wars

Seppelt’s investigative work over the past two years has most famously shed light on Russia’s allegedly systematic, state-sponsored doping in sports. Since then, more than 100 Russian athletes have been barred from participating at Rio 2016, for having failed tests or being under investigation by the World Anti-Doping Agency. Despite avoiding a ban of all its athletes from the Olympics, Russia has to contend with an all-out ban from the upcoming Rio Paralympics; it is appealing the decision.

Sporting practices in other countries such as China and North Korea have also been included in Seppelt’s investigations. At the Rio Olympics, Seppelt, in collaboration with London’s Sunday Times, has turned the spotlight on Kenyans’ involvement in doping schemes.

The scandal has led to the expulsion of two Kenyans from Rio 2016, including Michael Rotich, the manager of its track and field team. The undercover reporting team alleged they caught Rotich on camera talking about taking bribes to abet athletes using performance-enhancing substances.

Maria Sharapova_Australian Open Maria Sharapova at Australian Open 2014. (Photo: Peter Myers, Marija Šarapova agli Australian Open 2014, CC BY 2.0)

The doping problem is widespread and believed to be deeply ingrained in high-stakes international sports, having perhaps most notoriously brought down cycling legend Lance Armstrong. Among Russians, a high-profile case has involved the suspension of tennis star Maria Sharapova after she tested positive for meldonium during the last Australian Open. The suspension has cost Sharapova her participation at Rio 2016, but she could be reinstated early next year.

Besides running a story claiming Seppelt’s documentaries had no concrete evidence on systematic doping in Russia, Moscow-sponsored broadcaster Russia Today quoted experts as saying that “suspending Russian athletes from competitions would be a ‘cheap geopolitical’ move while politics should not invade sport.” Meanwhile, the BBC quoted IOC vice-president John Coates as calling the Russian anti-doping and athletics institutions "rotten to the core" and responsible for “a massive injustice.”

Denouncing press freedom violations during the Olympics

Other journalists and investigative reporting attempts could be under threat in Rio. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), in consultation with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), has recently launched a web platform for journalists to report press freedom violations at the Olympics. The mechanism is not limited to cases related to the government or other authorities, although the IOC does say that it “is intended specifically for those who may have experienced a violation of their press freedom in the context of their reporting on the organisation and staging of the Olympic Games.”

Says a related CPJ statement:

The creation of the reporting mechanism follows years of advocacy with the IOC by CPJ and other rights groups to do more to hold host governments accountable for press-freedom abuses that have limited coverage of sensitive issues around the Olympic Games.”

Press freedom abuses, often with host country authorities behind them, have been repeatedly observed at past Olympic games. The same CPJ statement specifically mentions violations at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia and the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China.

The Brazilian government has not been implicated in Seppelt’s case, and is not known as undemocratic. However, the CPJ reports that “journalists have previously been caught in the crossfire of the Brazilian police's heavy handed response to protests. A CNN producer and reporter were among those hurt on the eve of the World Cup's opening match [in 2014], when police used tear gas and stun grenades on protesters seven miles from the ground where the game took place.”  

The CPJ dubs Brazil the deadliest country in the Americas for journalists, and the third in the world, counting six murders with confirmed motives in 2015. The world’s deadliest last year was Syria (14 murders), followed by France (9).

Reporting tool

If you are a journalist covering the Olympics and have experienced a press freedom violation, click here to report it via the IOC platform.


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