In 2015 Russia’s doping scandal made international headlines. The most highly acclaimed newspapers dedicated numerous pages over various issues to unfold the secret of the state-sponsored doping in the largest country of the world.
What are the (alleged) roots of Russian doping and how did it become a “systematised organisation”? What is the untold story behind Olympic gold medals won by Russian athletes? And why are bans, great interventions insignificant in the long term?
The “Cleanest” Summer Olympics
The Moscow Olympics 1980, also called the “Chemists’ Games”, has the reputation of being the “Cleanest” in history. No athlete was disqualified for using banned substances thanks to the Soviet Union’s carefully planned urine sample switching tactics. The whole procedure is said to have many similarities with the state-sponsored doping program “performed” by Russia at the Winter Olympics in Sochi 2014.
In 1997 the KGB Fifth Directorate established the Eleventh Department with the aim to demolish any rebellious actions carried out against the state by its rivals from the preparation for the Games all the way to the end of the closing ceremonies. Completely normal but here comes a little twist: the new Department’s trouble preventers were also employed at the Moscow Anti-Doping Laboratory.
The athletes’ original urine samples were dispensed with and new, perfectly clean urine was used to fill the containers. This year the Soviet athletes won 195 medals, of which 80 were gold ones. This accomplishment was more than enough for the Soviet Union to be on top of the medal table (East Germany being the second with “merely” 47 first places and 126 medals in total). However, this was only the beginning.
The whistle-blowers Yuliya and Vitaly Stepanov
With a history of doping Yuliya Stepanova and her husband Vitaly, who worked at RUSADA (Russian Anti-Doping Agency), decided to uncover the dark secrets of the system of taking prohibited performance enhancing drugs. In 2013 she was banned by the I.A.A.F. (International Association of Athletics Federation) from competing for two years due to abnormalities in her biological passport. She was fed up with her coaches telling her what to do, what substances to take. She was told not to say a word just complete her two-year ban. She was furious that she was excluded from competing while the system kept operating intact, continuing the doping regime.
At the end of 2014 a documentary, titled “Top secret doping – how Russia makes its winners?” aired in Germany. It features the couple opening up about the doping practice in Russia. It even contains conversations, recorded by Stepanova, demonstrating athletes and coaches talking about the usage of banned drugs. According to the film, 99% of Russia’s athletes were doping.
The pair (with their young child) had to move quickly from the country. Their first stop was Germany. However, after having moved numerous times they settled in the US. At present their location is unknown due to safety reasons.
Yuliya Stepanova is not only proclaimed to be a traitor by her former teammates but she was also called by the name Judas by Vladimir V. Putin.
Dr Grigory Rodchenkov’s Confession and Icarus
Rodchenkov is a Russian chemist, former head of RUSADA. He switched urine samples to allow Russian athletes to perform at a higher level during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. As for the medal table Russia was once again on the top of the podium. They collected 11 gold and in total 30 medals.
How exactly did the doping system work?
In order to cheat the system, the Russians created a carefully planned procedure, including the “Duchess cocktail” (a drug used to boost growth in farm animals). The three anabolic steroids, oxandrolone, methenolone and trenbolone (the latter can cause liver damage), had to be consumed with alcohol to help absorption. Chivas whisky was given to men, and women paired it with vermouth. The cocktail was swilled around the mouth then spat out. This way the drugs were absorbed through the cells of the cheeks. This meant that (instead of using injections) the window for detecting the drug shortened. The mixture of these steroids helped athletes to recover quickly and be in peak conditions for the races. The Duchess cocktail was also used during the Sochi Winter Olympic Games. The substances were used to retain nitrogen (positive nitrogen balance aids muscle growth, it accelerates anabolic processes) and they reduce fat gain.
So how did Rodchenkov end up in the system?
The film “Icarus” is an Oscar winning documentary. It starts with Bryan Fogel’s (the producer) decision to dope for the greatest amateur cycling race but it quickly turns into the documentary of the world’s biggest doping scandal known so far. In “Icarus” Rodchenkov describes how he became the main character in Russia’s plan to cheat the Olympics. He gave his answers in a mock questioning led by Fogel.
According to Rodchenkov he was the mastermind of the state’s doping machinery. To understand the evolution of the events, it is fundamental to understand the background. China was the largest producer of safe, trusted anabolics in the world. However, as it became an Olympic country in 2008, China had to stop manufacturing them. This meant that Russians had to find new ways of acquiring steroids.
Sergei Portugalov, ex-chief of the Russian Athletics Federation’s Medical Commission, got hold of supplies which had not gone through the required testing procedure. So, athletes started asking Rodchenkov (as he knew one source) where to obtain clean steroids from. This way Rodchenkov became the “manager” of the whole systematic doping organisation. However, one day he had a fall out with Portugalov. Rodchenkov immediately became the enemy. The police confiscated his computer and told him he was facing prison sentence. After learning the news Rodchenkov wanted to escape. Escape from the police. Escape from prison. Escape from the system. He attempted suicide.
After having recovered in the hospital he was transported to a psychiatric clinic. Due to the authorities thinking he was suicidal, he couldn’t be taken to prison. Later he was transferred to another clinic, where he had to reside with the most brutal criminals ever. It was during this time, still in the psychiatric hospital where he worked as the head of Russia’s national anti-doping laboratory. He was even invited as the director of the Anti-Doping Centre to the 2012 London Olympics. His case was dropped.
“Operation Sochi Resultat”
Russia was determined to have a glorious triumph at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. A carefully planned strategy was used in order to be the most successful country at the Winter Games. As allegedly a certain percent of Russian athletes were doping before and during the races, the dirty urines had to be replaced with clean ones.
To store athletes’ urine samples, special bottles were used. The Bereg Kit is said to be temper-evident, meaning if someone were able to open the container there would be evidence of such an act. Apparently Russia was able to beat the system using their secret weapon, room 124 a shadow laboratory.
The collection process of athletes’ urine is described in Icarus as safe, top-quality. The samples are divided into two. A and B. The Bereg-Kit, which is sealed very tight (with the help of the toothed metal rings) once closed, is used to store the samples. The whole procedure is monitored, carefully observed by a collector. Once locked, the containers are transported to the laboratory where (if needed) the A samples are tested. The other half, B is stored in a special freezer and only opened if the first one tested positive.
The Russians managed to beat the Bereg-Kit and the entire methodology system behind it. The 2014 Sochi Olympics host country needed to work out a new way of opening the bottles without leaving any evidence. This was the task of an F.S.B. (Federal Security Service) officer. He allegedly practiced the safe unlocking on hundreds of the toothed metal rings.
Every night, in case of a Russian athlete winning a medal, their dirty urine had to be substituted with clean ones taken months before the 2014 Winter Games. Under the cover of darkness the original (dirty) urines were transported by Russian officials to the shadow laboratory, room 124 using a small hole disguised as a power outlet without a socket. The clean urines were stored, described by Rodchenkov in Icarus, in an old KGB building next to the laboratory. They had to be extremely careful, precaution was key as everything was monitored, observed by WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) and the IOC. Both A and B samples were exchanged and taken back to the lab. Sochi was the tip of the iceberg in Russian state sponsored doping.
Russia won an outstanding 33 medals at the Sochi Olympics of which, according to Dr Grigory Rodchenkov, 15 athletes’ urines had to be replaced. “We are top-level cheaters.” he added.
Consequences and the colossal power and influence of Russia
WADA began to carry out an investigation by an independent commission led by Richard Pound, the first president of the World Anti-Doping Agency, in 2015. Evidence confirms that Russia operated a deep-rooted, systematised doping system in athletics and allegedly other sports as well. Cover-ups and destruction of samples were found according to WADA’s independent commission’s press conference. Moreover, the commission recommended that the Russian Federation be suspended (at least the track-and-field team) from the 2016 Rio Olympics.
The state sponsored doping was still under investigation carried out by a world-renowned professor and lawyer (specialising in sports law as well) Richard McLaren. He had been appointed by WADA to make inquiries into the allegations of systematic doping and cover-ups in Russia, made by Dr Grigory Rodchenkov. The McLaren Investigation Report, released 18th July 2016, confirms the existence of “Russian state manipulation of doping control process”.
“Not only does the evidence implicate the Russian Ministry of Sport in running a doping system that’s sole aim was to subvert the doping control process, it also states that there was active participation and assistance of the Federal Security Service and the Center of Sports Preparation of National Teams of Russia.” said Sir Craig Reedie, President, WADA.
It also has evidence against the Moscow laboratory, in processing and covering up (urine) samples, and against RUSADA as well.
After receiving the McLaren Report WADA’s Executive Committee made several recommendations. It has to be noted that WADA may only give advice which will be considered by the relevant organisation. In this particular case the Agency’s suggestions were the following:
- The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) to consider, under their respective Charters, to decline entries, for Rio 2016, of all athletes submitted by the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) and the Russian Paralympic Committee.
- The International Federations (IFs) from sports implicated in the McLaren Report to consider their responsibilities under the World Anti-Doping Code (Code) as far as their Russian National Federations (NFs) are concerned.
- Russian government officials to be denied access to international competitions, including Rio 2016.
- The Russian National Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) to remain non-compliant under the Code and its staffing and independence to be further reviewed by WADA.
- The accreditation process of the WADA-accredited laboratory in Moscow (Moscow laboratory) to be stopped.
- The FIFA Ethics Committee to look into allegations concerning football and the role played by a member of its Executive Committee, Minister Vitaly Mutko.
- Professor McLaren and his team to complete their mandate provided WADA can secure the funding that would be required.
Professor McLaren’s Investigation Report may be found here.
In spite of WADA’s recommendations the IOC decided to allow the Russian athletes to compete in the world’s celebrated sporting event. Two weeks before the start of the 2016 Summer Games the IOC announced the participation of Russia but approved certain measures as well that could reduce the number of Russian athletes taking part. Individual federations that govern each sport had the power to decide which Russian athlete may be permitted to compete.
“In this way, we protect these clean athletes because of the high criteria we set for all the Russian athletes. This may not please everybody on either side. ….but still the result today is one which is respecting the rules of justice and which is respecting the right of all the clean athletes all over the world.” said Thomas Bach, President of the IOC
However, others saw the matter of a completely opposite perspective. “The decision regarding Russian participation and the confusing mess left in its wake is a significant blow to the rights of clean athletes,” said Travis Tygart, the CEO of the United States Anti-Doping Agency. Joseph de Pencier, CEO of the 59-Member Institute of National Anti-Doping Organizations, regards the International Olympic Committee’s decision as a “sad day for clean sport”. Moreover, he added that the individual federations would have barely enough time to properly apply the measures to approve clean Russian athletes. He criticised the IOC for ruling against WADA’s recommendation to decline entries of all athletes submitted by the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) and the Russian Paralympic Committee, for ignoring calls of clean athletes and several athlete organisations.
Many athletes raised their voice against the IOC and generally judged them for their poor decision-making. Amongst them, Hayley Wickenheiser, a Canadian former four-times ice hockey Olympic champion wrote on Twitter:
“We missed a moment in time to honour the world’s clean athletes and send a bold message to the world that corruption, cheating and manipulating sport will not be tolerated, (…) I ask myself if we were not dealing with Russia would this decision to ban a nation been an easier one? I fear the answer is yes,” she added.
Of the original 389 participants submitted by Russia 278 were allowed to compete in Rio.
Pyeongchang Winter Olympics
The IOC banned the Russian team to compete in the 2018 Winter Games. However, athletes who had no cases with previous doping violations were an exception. They were able to participate provided they wore a logo saying: “Olympic Athlete from Russia”. Their uniforms could not show any reference to their home country.
In case of a Russian contestant winning the Olympic flag appeared at the medal ceremony and the Olympic anthem was played.
What happens now?
The Court of Arbitration for sport cut Russia’s suspension to two, instead of the original four years imposed by WADA . They are still banned from the Tokyo Summer Olympics and the Beijing Winter Olympics so the country’s athletes will compete under the name: ROC. So, what does this mean exactly? The ban only refers to Russia’s name. Consequently, athletes from the country are allowed to participate but they need to “represent” ROC that stands for Russian Olympic Committee. Their flag and anthem are still under ban.
In 2020 Callum Skinner, British Olympic gold medal cyclist, regarded the act as “the biggest doping scandal in history had gone unpunished”.
“Russia hasn’t been banned, they’ve been rebranded as Neutral Athletes from Russia.” He added.
(Source of the cover photo: https://www.businessinsider.com/russia-might-be-banned-from-olympics-over-suspicious-doping-results-2019-9)