Whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov: ‘Sport won’t be clean. Never’
Grigory Rodchenkov sits in a darkened room wearing a straw hat, large sunglasses and surgical mask. I have no idea where he is; our Lunch is taking place over a video chat. Nor do I have any clue what he looks like; the disguise ensures that anyone snooping on the call would not either.
Across the world, the coronavirus pandemic still rages. How is the 61-year-old coping with the lockdown of recent weeks? “Weeks?” comes the muffled, incredulous response. “Years!”
Being in lockdown is nothing new for Rodchenkov. The former director of Moscow’s anti-doping laboratory was the brains behind a vast conspiracy, a multiyear state-sanctioned doping programme to help Russia’s athletes gain supremacy at the Olympic Games. Four years ago he turned whistleblower, having left behind his wife, son and daughter to flee alone to the US. Granted asylum last year, he lives in an unknown location within the country’s witness protection programme.
His defection helped to uncover one of the greatest scandals in the history of sport, leading to a series of sanctions that meant, if the Tokyo Olympics were taking place right now as planned, that Russian athletes would be forced to compete as neutrals. That punishment may still apply once the Games, delayed until next year, eventually take place.
Elaborate measures to protect Rodchenkov’s identity are warranted, given the recent history of murders and attempted assassinations of Russian dissidents. His lawyer, Jim Walden, told me that three of the 60 Russian nationals expelled from the US in March 2018 in response to the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in the UK were actually removed because they had been directed to find his client.
“You live with this,” says Rodchenkov. “It’s the same [as] war. You are afraid at war during the first week. Then you live in war. I am living in war.”
Elite sport has long been bedevilled by drug-taking scandals, from the East German programme of the 1960s to the 2002 Balco affair, in which one Californian laboratory designed steroids for dozens of top US athletes. Champions such as American cyclist Lance Armstrong and Chinese swimmer Sun Yang have been sanctioned for doping offences in recent years. Yet, according to Rodchenkov, nothing compares to the scale and sophistication of Russia’s project.
“We reach limits in political corruption, because the groups around Putin are absolutely criminal,” he says. “We have the most huge and worst tradition: not fighting against doping, but promoting doping. We have the best researchers in my laboratory. No other country could even reach halfway what we did. There may be corruption and collusion . . . but not so widespread.”
This is the stuff of great drama. Already the protagonist of Icarus, an Oscar-winning 2017 Netflix documentary, he this week released a memoir, The Rodchenkov Affair: How I Brought Down Putin’s Secret Doping Empire.
Searching for gravitas, both the film and his book are studded with references to George Orwell’s 1984. Rodchenkov casts himself as a modern-day Winston Smith, a man trapped within a totalitarian regime. He writes that the memoir is “not an attempt to make excuses for my actions, nor to justify them. It strives to be one thing above all: honest . . . for as George Orwell wrote, ‘In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.’”
Here’s the thing. That quote, according to scholars, is misattributed to Orwell. Honesty is a habit, nurtured over decades. So how can Rodchenkov be a reliable narrator of this tale? Why should the architect of a great fraud be trusted to explain how it was constructed?
Putin, who described Rodchenkov as a “jerk”, has admitted that Russia has doping problems, but denies any state-sponsored campaign and has condemned the Olympic ban as politically motivated. Rodchenkov argues that he is a small player in a bigger game.
“[Manfred] Donike [a German who pioneered drug testing in sport in the 1970s] knew that the Soviet system was ugly,” he says. “He always told me: ‘I don’t blame you, I blame the system.’”
For our lunch, Rodchenkov has suggested we cook borsch, a soup cooked across eastern Europe for centuries. His recipe requires celery, courgettes, carrots, leek and garlic, along with heaps of shredded beetroot.
“There are many different ways to cook borsch,” says Rodchenkov, adding a sprinkling of self-regard: “I know how to cook it the best.” He tilts his camera to show off his dish, which is ruby-coloured and translucent. My creation is a poor comparison. Brown and gloopy, it is a bog-standard vegetable soup.
“A cook might be a poor chemist,” says Rodchenkov. “But a chemist is always a great cook.”
After enrolling in the chemistry department of the prestigious Moscow State University in 1977, Rodchenkov dreamt of becoming a top distance runner. Finding his rivals on the track were doping, he began taking injections of steroids — administered by his mother. On graduating, Rodchenkov decided he lacked the talent to become an elite athlete and joined Moscow’s anti-doping laboratory.
During the 1986 “Goodwill Games” in Moscow, a tournament set up by Ted Turner in response to the cold war boycotts that overshadowed the Olympics in Moscow in 1980 and in Los Angeles in 1984, he was a young analyst who detected a positive test in the sample of Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson. Seeking to avoid scandal, Rodchenkov’s superiors covered up the finding. Two years later, Johnson would win the 100-metre race at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, only to be disqualified for a doping violation.
This experience confirmed the Soviet assumption that “foreigners are using drugs”, says Rodchenkov, so his compatriots were levelling the playing field by doing the same over the decades.
By 2005, Rodchenkov was head of Moscow’s anti-doping centre. To the outside world, he was supposed to lead the country’s efforts to catch drugs cheats. In reality, the job was to cover up the positive tests of Russian athletes.
“Remember Orwell? He said: ‘Who controls the past controls the future,’” says Rodchenkov. “In Russia, that means falsifying hundreds of results, even thousands.”
But Rodchenkov went further. Modern tests can identify “long-term metabolites”, substances that appear in the bloodstream following steroid use. He invented a three-drug cocktail, instructing Russians to swirl the concoction in their mouths with alcohol: Chivas whisky for men, Martini vermouth for women. The process helped absorb the mixture and ensure that metabolites did not emerge. Now athletes would pass doping tests outside Russia too.
“I knew it was cheating,” he says, but admits to perverse professional pride. “Whatever I am doing, I would like to show my highest level of expertise.”
Rodchenkov is not touching his borsch. Is his disguise preventing him from eating? “When I am [talking], I am absolutely losing my appetite,” he explains. “My stomach has shrunk.”
As I sip my soup, he continues to tell his story. The apotheosis of Rodchenkov’s career came during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi or, as Rodchenkov calls them, “Putin’s Games”. The Russian president ordered the transformation of the subtropical Black Sea resort into a snow-filled winter-sports wonderland. At an estimated cost of $51bn, the most expensive Olympics in history were the hubristic stage for the nation’s return as a great power.
The narrative also required Russians to bestride the podium. Past humiliations, such as at the 2010 Vancouver games, when Russia won just three gold medals in the country’s worst Olympics performance, could not be repeated. Usually, athletes stop doping before competitions in time for the banned substances to leave the bloodstream. Rodchenkov alleges that Russia’s ministry of sport demanded that they dope throughout the Sochi games to better ensure the success of its sportspeople.
GRIGORY RODCHENKOV’S BORSCH
Chop some celery, courgettes, carrots and garlic and slow boil for 5-10 minutes. Add red pepper pods
Add shredded beets and carrots, plus chopped tomato and leek, and slow boil for a further 5-7 minutes. Add salt if required
Remove pepper pods. Add sliced leek and some coriander. Boil for a further five minutes
Allow to cool. Leave in a fridge overnight
Agents for the FSB, Russia’s secret service, devised a method to remove caps from supposedly tamper-proof bottles, swapping dirty urine samples for clean ones. Avoiding surveillance cameras and independent observers at Sochi’s laboratory, FSB agents and Russian doping officials passed the bottles to each other through a “mouse hole” in the wall. For posterity, Rodchenkov snapped a photograph of the hole, concealed by a cabinet. The strategy worked: Russia topped the medals table.
Was he proud of this ill-begotten achievement? “It was a very, very complicated feeling,” says Rodchenkov. “I was obliged. I had no choice . . . My [career] progression was based on how Russians would be seen at the Olympic Games.”
Those mixed emotions came from an earlier awakening. In 2011, entangled in a dispute with a powerful Russian coach, he faced criminal charges for allegedly selling steroids. Rodchenkov says he faced hours of interrogation designed to force a false confession that he refused to provide.
Believing his career was in ruins, Rodchenkov stabbed himself in the chest. The suicide attempt failed but he was confined to a Moscow psychiatric hospital.
The following year, he received a personal invitation to visit the UK and tour the anti-doping facilities built for the London 2012 Olympics. The trip was vital if Russia was to work out if new techniques had been invented to detect doping. Suddenly, the case against Rodchenkov was dropped. He believes the release was engineered by the Kremlin.
Instead of being grateful, Rodchenkov says his eyes were opened to how the power of the state could turn against him. “Yes, I need revenge,” he says of the episode. “For such things that I hardly survived . . . if God takes me from [the] grave, [it is] for what purpose? To change the situation.”
Another “point of no return”, says Rodchenkov, was the slaying of Boris Nemtsov, the Russian opposition leader shot dead on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge next to the Kremlin in February 2015. Five Chechen men would later be convicted of the murder. Rodchenkov — and some of Nemtsov’s allies — suspect the hit was ordered from high up.
“His calibre of human or politician is 10 times larger than Putin and any of his advisers,” says Rodchenkov. “They were jealous. They cannot tolerate him.”
Was it the moment democracy died in Russia? “Russia died earlier,” he says. “Nemtsov is, I would say, a milestone. It was a short amount of time that Russia pretended to be [a democracy].”
But how honourable was Rodchenkov’s defection really?
Shortly after the Sochi Games, he began collaborating with Bryan Fogel, the film-maker behind Icarus. Fogel was an amateur cyclist who wanted to show the weaknesses in the global drug testing regime by becoming a human guinea pig, adopting a doping regimen designed by Rodchenkov. Providing this assistance was in clear violation of rules laid out by the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) and more than enough to end his career.
Why the self-sabotage? Rodchenkov puts it down to a reckless sense of adventure. “After Sochi, my life became flat,” he says. “I need adrenaline.” And not administered intravenously, either.
Perhaps, I suggest, Rodchenkov was plotting to save his skin? In December 2014, the German broadcaster ARD screened a documentary by investigative journalist Hajo Seppelt called The Secrets of Doping: How Russia Makes Its Winners. Based on secret footage taken by runner-turned-whistleblower Yulia Stepanova, it accused 99 per cent of Russia’s track and field Olympians of taking performance-enhancing drugs.
The documentary accused Rodchenkov of extorting athletes for money to cover up positive tests. He vehemently denies the accusation. “I said to [Seppelt] — it’s not in the movie — if I do this once, to change positive test to negative [for money], there would be a queue to my door from athletes that would come to me every day.”
In response to Seppelt’s film, Wada created an independent commission
to investigate the allegations, which subsequently identified Rodchenkov as Russia’s doping kingpin.
“I became useless,” Rodchenkov says of being outed. “I resigned [as director of Moscow’s anti-doping lab]. My supervisor, he told me, ‘You are in danger, because nobody is interested in what you say: Wada or Russia’ . . . I felt threatened. I became paranoid.”
As shown in Icarus, Fogel and Rodchenkov had grown so close that the film-maker organised for him to leave Moscow for Los Angeles. With investigations closing in on his role in orchestrating mass doping, Rodchenkov would go on to provide testimony, corroborated by Wada, that led to its recommendation that Russia should be banned from the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
The International Olympic Committee, the governing body for the games, fudged its response. It declined to impose a blanket ban and left individual sports federations to decide whether the country’s competitors were clean. In the event, 271 of Russia’s original 386-strong team entered the 2016 games.
The saga rumbles on. Last year, Wada accused Russia’s anti-doping authority of further tampering with a drug-test database, enacting a new four-year ban that means Russian athletes must compete as neutrals in major competitions. This ruling is under appeal.
In Russia, Rodchenkov is denounced as a villain with incongruous aims: a rogue actor who worked alone, an unstable liar with mental health problems, a traitorous double agent engaged in a western plot to damage Russia’s prestige. “It is all Russian lies,” he says. “That I became American spy? Never ever.”
Does he apologise for his role in the deceit? Yes and no. Rodchenkov expresses remorse towards honest athletes beaten by rivals fuelled by a chemical kick. But he makes no apologies to Wada, the IOC or other sporting federations he accuses of never being serious about imposing effective controls. “I am sorry for my actions in front of you,” he says. “I am not sorry for my action in front of Craig Reedie [Wada’s former president]. This is a huge difference.”
Whatever the reasons for Rodchenkov’s conversion to crusading truth-teller, it has come at personal cost. “It’s my dream to meet my children and my wife . . . on US territory,” he says. “I cannot go back to Russia.”
I express hope that we will meet in person, so I can taste his borsch. At a time when he can live freely. We both know it is an optimistic vision, as naive as believing all our sporting heroes are above reproach, their feats untainted.
“It’s a day dream,” says Rodchenkov. “Sport won’t be clean. Never.”
Murad Ahmed is the FT’s sports editor
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