Russia's sports establishment remains too hard a nut to crack

Russia's sports establishment remains too hard a nut to crack
Bryan Fogel's (right) search for the best doping coach leads him to Grigory Rodchenkov (left), the head of the Moscow anti-doping laboratory.
By Carmen Valache in Berlin February 6, 2018

On the last stretch before the Winter Olympics start in PyeongChang, South Korea, on February 9, Russia received a partial vindication in the doping scandal engulfing its athletes since the previous Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in 2014.

On February 1, the world's top sports court overturned a lifetime ban placed on 28 Russian Olympians after Sochi, reinstated their previously stripped medals and allowed them to participate in this year's Olympics, because the evidence against them was insufficient.

In Moscow, the ruling of the Switzerland-based Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) was hailed as a confirmation of the country's position, which has been to deny allegations of doping in spite of abundant proof to the contrary. "This, of course, cannot but give us joy. [...] It confirms our position on the fact that the vast majority of our athletes are clean," President Vladimir Putin boasted.

Putin and his cabinet have long complained that the Russian doping scandal was nothing but a political conspiracy against the country. While he himself admitted that some Russian athletes may have been doping, Putin has denied the existence of a state-sponsored doping programme in Russia and compared the likelihood of doping among Russian athletes to that among athletes everywhere.

However, numerous whistle-blowers from within Russia would beg to differ. As early as 2010, Vitaly Stepanov, an employee of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) began sending information to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) about Russia's systematic doping programme. Russian discus throwing Olympian Darya Pishchalnikova also emailed WADA in 2012 with similar allegations, but her emails were ignored and she was later stripped of her medals and barred from the sport for a decade by the Russian Sports Federation.

Then, in December 2014, a documentary broadcast by German television channel ARD finally prompted people to take notice. Since then, numerous investigative reports, including the famous McLaren doping report commissioned by WADA and published in 2016, have revealed time and again that Russia has indeed been doping its athletes for years.

Flying high

“Icarus”, a documentary by American playwright and actor Bryan Fogel that premiered in January 2017, has brought the Russian doping scandal to the attention of consumers of popular culture everywhere. That is not least because the Netflix-backed documentary is currently contending for an Oscar award for best documentary feature.

In many ways, “Icarus” – named after the Greek mythological character who flew too close to the sun and paid for it with his life – is an unlikely expose of Russia's doping scandal. In a credible, though not always subtle manner, Fogel documents what started as a pet project to replicate disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong's feat of winning cycling races by doping. An amateur cyclist, Fogel decides to inject himself with performance-enhancing drugs and then participate in an amateur cycling competition, in order to test the ability of anti-doping tests and agencies to detect banned substances.

His search for the best doping coach leads him to Grigory Rodchenkov, the head of the Moscow anti-doping laboratory, who counsels Fogel remotely for several months and seeks to console him when his doping scheme fails.

Fogel takes part twice in the Haute Route amateur bike competition in the Alps, which he describes as the "single hardest amateur bike race in the world". In 2014, he participates drug-free and finishes 14th out of 40 contenders in the long, seven-stage version of the race. He then stumbles upon Rodchenkov, who appears to be an eccentric, but encyclopaedic mind with regard to everything that is drug- and sports-related. A former athlete himself, Rodchenkov walks Fogel through a comprehensive doping schedule over several months via Skype.

The results of his doping efforts are underwhelming. In the 2015 race, Fogel is placed 27th, his performance sabotaged by a bike failure in the second stage of the competition. A disappointed Fogel then flies to Moscow to meet Rodchenkov in person, and that is when he stumbles upon what appears to be one of the worst kept secrets in Russian and international sport.

During Fogel's stay in Russia, Rodchenkov, whose boundless energy and quirks successfully conceal a history of mental illness, is visibly shaken when his childhood friend, Nikita Kamaev, dies of an apparent heart attack in February 2016. Kamaev, 52, and an executive at RUSADA, had a young wife and was planning to have children, Rochenkov says.

"I've known him since school and he never complained about his heart. [...] He wrote book.... It is dangerous to write book in Russia," he laments on camera in “Icarus”. "WADA is ready to pay anything for me and for you [Fogel] to disappear because we destroy not only their future, we destroy their past," he continues.

Kamaev was the second Russian anti-doping executive to die in less than two weeks, after Vyacheslav Sinev, the RUSADA chairman, was found dead with signs of violent beating on his body in early February 2016. Neither of the two murder cases have so far been solved.

A garrulous man by nature, it does not take much for the grieving Rodchenkov to start spilling the beans. He reveals to Fogel the ‘why’ – Putin had been disappointed by Russia's results at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver – and ‘how’ of the Russian doping scheme.

Rodchenkov reveals in “Icarus” a cheating conspiracy so huge that it is almost beyond belief even for fans of conspiracy theories. According to him, the Russian government and secret services outsmarted WADA and its security measures at Sochi by exchanging athletes' urine samples at night (in order to avoid WADA's 24-hour CCTV cameras) through a secret back room. Both the samples that were meant for testing and those for storage - each athelete is required to submit two urine samples for testing, as per WADA's procedures, only one of which is tested in a first instance - had been replaced by fake ones for all the participating Russian athletes, he claims. 

Fully aware of the danger to his life following his revelations, Rodchenkov asks Fogel to help him secure political refugee status for himself – but not his wife and children, surprisingly – in the US. After overcoming several roadblocks, the man whom Putin called a "jerk" manages to get himself included in the US witness protection programme and goes into hiding.

Professional bureaucracy

Credible voices have long criticised the ability of professional sports organisations to spot and prosecute cheaters. For starters, some of the practices and substances banned by WADA, such as blood doping (extraction and re-introduction of blood samples into the body to enhance oxygen levels), are notoriously difficult to spot. According to Rodchenkov, athletes and their coaches have long mastered techniques to outsmart WADA's five-tiered banned drug and practice list by altering doses and the times when doses are administered, and by replacing official urine samples with "clean" ones, which sometimes do not even belong to the same athlete.

Secondly, professional sports organisations – ranging from cycling to Formula 1 to international football and even national and international Olympic organisations – have repeatedly been discredited by corruption and cover-up scandals in recent years.

Thirdly, the significant fragmentation in the jurisdiction of different sports organisations, such as the International Olympic Committee (OIC), the CAS and the WADA, which rely on fair reporting by national sports organisations, makes it incredibly difficult to investigate and document cases of doping or cheating.

In the wake of CAS' February 1 ruling, Thomas Bach, the IOC president, criticised CAS for its inability to produce a "reasoned decision" and threatened that his organisation would appeal the decision. CAS responded on February 5, saying that it was working on the "reasoned decision" and would publish it as soon as possible.

The IOC itself is hardly a model of consistency when it comes to punishing doping. Before CAS' ruling, it had already decided to allow 169 Russian Olympians to participate in the 2018 winter competition as "Olympic Athletes from Russia", after previously ruling to ban Russia from participating in the Winter Olympics.

The Russian anthem and flag will not be displayed at PyeongChang; instead the IOC's colours and sounds will, should Russian Olympians win medals. In essence, the IOC punished the Russian Olympic Committee, which comprises of bureaucrats and sports executives, but not Russian athletes. The distinction may be important to the IOC, but in Moscow – and everywhere else – it looked like a way to save face by punishing Russia without actually doing so.

However, the issue of the Russian doping scandal raises red flags beyond its results in recent competitions, particularly when factoring in Russia's long-standing history with success in professional sports, and the likelihood that that success was tainted by performance-enhancing drugs.

Looking forward, Russia will be the host of this year's FIFA World Cup, which starts in June in Moscow. And while FIFA has reportedly begun proceedings to ensure that its landmark championship will not be tainted by the same doping allegations as the Olympics, the reality is that neither FIFA, nor anyone else, has done much to punish the perpetrators of past transgressions or prevent them happening again.

Take Vitaly Mutko, for instance, Russia's former Sports Minister and current Deputy Prime Minister, and a key figure in the Sochi doping scandal, whom Rodchenkov describes as a "KGB man" with "no morals at all". The official may have allegations of foul play and even murder looming over his head, and may have been banned for life by the IOC from taking part in any Olympic events, but in Russia he has climbed the ranks in recent years. Having been promoted to deputy prime minister and made head of the 2018 World Cup organising committee, Mutko announced that he was stepping down from the latter role in December following pressure over his alleged role in the 2014 doping scandal.

Nevertheless, the Kremlin later announced that he would continue to oversee the preparations for the event in his role as a "member of the federal government". It appears that Russian sport – and politicians – are just too hard a nut to crack with the bureaucratic and fragmented prosecution mechanisms available at the moment.