PARIS — Six years before the IAAF banned Russia, track and field's governing body knew of doping so out of control it feared Russian athletes could die from abusing blood-boosting drugs and transfusions, and officials considered collaborating with Russians to hide the extent of cheating before the 2012 London Olympics, according to internal documents obtained by The Associated Press.
When the massive scandal of state-sponsored doping and cover-ups in Russia finally erupted in 2015, IAAF leaders acted as though blindsided. "This has been a shameful wake-up call," said Sebastian Coe, the British Olympian and new president of the International Association of Athletics Federations.
But as a sophisticated new blood-testing program was launched in 2009, IAAF tests were already providing shocking insight into the scale and gravity of Russian doping, according to six years of emails, letters and reports the AP received from a person intimately involved in the IAAF's anti-doping program. The person requested anonymity because he wasn't allowed to release the documents.
At that stage, the test results weren't enough on their own to sanction athletes, but they raise questions about why the organization waited six years before suspending Russia, which could see its athletes miss the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in August.
"Not only are these athletes cheating their fellow competitors but at these levels are putting their health and even their own lives in very serious danger," Pierre Weiss, the IAAF general secretary from 2006-11, wrote in an Oct. 14, 2009, letter to Valentin Balakhnichev, the Russian athletics president banned for life from the sport last week. Russians "recorded some of the highest values ever seen since the IAAF started testing."
Tests at the 2009 world championships, where Russia won 13 medals, "strongly suggest a systematic abuse of blood doping or EPO-related products," Weiss added.
Athletes are banned from using transfusions and the hormone EPO, which boosts levels of oxygen-carrying red blood cells, artificially improving performance. They can increase the risk of clots, strokes and heart attacks.
The documents reveal how the IAAF cajoled Russian officials to act, but also used advances in blood testing against offenders. They shed light on key junctures in the crisis, which has been muddied by allegations that IAAF and Russian officials took bribes from athletes to hide doping.
— Internal IAAF papers before the London Olympics proposed hiding doping sanctions for lesser-known Russians. An April 2012 note said this approach couldn't be used for Russia's best athletes because that would allow them to keep "11 world titles and numerous European titles acquired under the influence of doping." The elite athletes could not be discreetly removed from major competitions.
— A Sept. 28, 2012, internal brief for then-IAAF President Lamine Diack estimated 42 percent of tested Russian elite athletes doped.
— After the 2009 worlds, Weiss told Balakhnichev that seven Russians — including two gold medalists — would have been forced to sit out the competition if the IAAF had had the same rules as some other sports.
— Before the 2009 worlds, Weiss also alerted Balakhnichev that Russians were evading tests by saying they were in the military and couldn't tell testers where they were.
The IAAF told AP the letters were genuine. Spokesman Chris Turner said they were a "clear, open warning" to Russia and insisted the IAAF has been "very strong" in dealing with the sports powerhouse.
By 2011, the IAAF's new testing regime was flagging so many suspected Russian dopers that officials explored breaking their own rules and those of the World Anti-Doping Agency by dealing with some cases privately, two notes show.
The notes proposed by-the-book sanctions for elite Russians likely to win in London, but "rapid and discreet" handling for lesser-known athletes whose disappearance from competition would probably go unnoticed.
For athletes who agreed, the IAAF would "undertake not to publish the sanction," which would be shortened to two years from four, according to a Dec. 5, 2011, brief that Turner said was sent by IAAF anti-doping director Gabriel Dolle to Diack's legal counsel, Habib Cisse.
The IAAF says the proposals were never carried out. Balakhnichev told AP: "There were no secret bans. At least I didn't know and didn't hear about there being any."
Turner said a colleague of Dolle's objected to the proposed non-disclosure of bans and they were published.
"Every athlete was investigated and has either been sanctioned or is currently going through a legal process as part of being sanctioned," he said.
The IAAF's ethics commission has banned Dolle for five years for what it called an "inexcusable lack of due care and diligence" involving Liliya Shobukhova, a marathoner who blew the whistle on blackmail, bribery and doping cover-ups involving Balakhnichev and others.
A second round of findings are due Thursday from a WADA probe led by International Olympic Committee veteran Dick Pound, who told AP that documents indicating IAAF officials contemplated not disclosing doping bans were surprising and "not exactly in line with our rules."
Weiss said the IAAF couldn't have suspended Russia earlier than last year, after the WADA commission concluded the Russian government was complicit in a "deeply rooted culture of cheating."
"WADA found out more than we could ever find ourselves," he said in an interview.
Still, the documents show the IAAF long worked behind the scenes with Russia before its Nov. 13 about-face, when IAAF Council members voted 22-1 to suspend all Russian athletes. Russia must convince the IAAF it is changing to be reinstated.
The documents provide no evidence of clear criminal activity. Diack faces corruption and money laundering charges in France, accused of taking more than $1.1 million in a scheme to blackmail athletes and cover up doping. French magistrates also are investigating Cisse and Dolle for suspected corruption.
Last week, the IAAF ethics commission issued a lifetime ban for Papa Massata Diack, one of Diack's sons, for his role in the blackmail of Shobukhova. Also banned for life were Balakhnichev and Alexei Melnikov, former head coach of Russia's race-walking and long-distance running programs.
James Ellingworth in Moscow contributed