The former mastermind of Russian sports doping, Grigory Rodchenkov, gave an interview to the BBC this week with his veiled face in the dark shadow of a wide-brimmed straw hat. Now in hiding in the US, after revealing all to the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada), it’s a potentially life-saving precaution. Matt Majendie explains why.
Only a small handful of people are aware of the current whereabouts of Dr Grigory Rodchenkov. Not even his lawyer, Jim Walden, knows his address in hiding. But Russian officials are keen to find out.
When the US expelled 60 Russian diplomats, in protest at the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in March 2018, Walden says he was informed some had been closing in on his client.
“What we learned from the bureau [FBI] was that three of the Russians that were expelled were people that had been placed here by the Kremlin to try to find Dr Rodchenkov. We actually saw pictures of those individuals. So, the threat to Dr Rodchenkov is real.”
Head of the Moscow drug-testing laboratory, Rodchenkov was the architect of Russian doping at London 2012 and at the winter games in Sochi two years later. But when a Wada-instigated investigation in 2015 revealed the covering up of failed tests at his lab and the hasty destruction of 1,417 samples, he fled to the USA. Then, as recounted in the Oscar-winning documentary, Icarus, he became a high-level whistleblower, confessing all.
To some Russians, this makes him a traitor. President Vladimir Putin has mused that he is “under the control of American special services”, as well as describing him as “an imbecile with obvious problems”.
But for now, Rodchenkov has lived to tell the tale. As Walden puts it: “He has lived multiple lives in one body. It’s really incredible the way by dint of good relationships, luck and a degree of cunning he has somehow survived against all odds.”
Rodchenkov’s career in Russian doping labs appeared to have come to an end in 2011 when he was arrested and accused of drug trafficking along with his sister, Marina. Ordered to plead guilty in the case, he instead made a gruesome and botched attempt to take his own life.
He was then incarcerated in a series of psychiatric institutions and given a series of “psychotropic drugs”, according to Walden, who says his life was saved by a simple invitation from London.
On paper, he was still laboratory chief for the Sochi Games in 2014, so he was invited to join London 2012 testing chief David Cowan at the Harlow laboratory for the 2012 Games. It was an intelligence-gathering opportunity that couldn’t be missed and the invitation was for him alone, so he was released and officially cleared of all charges.
Cowan wasn’t happy about it – like many, he had suspicions about his Russian colleagues – but it was out of his control. “Because he was a member of the IOC medical commission, the laboratory was required to give him information on what was going on,” he said. “He was entitled to see anything.”
At this stage, the drug of choice used by many Russian athletes was oral turinabol, a drug created as part of another state-sponsored doping programme in East Germany during the 1970s.
Already by the time of his lab visit, Rodchenkov knew Russians would, most likely, wholesale be caught, not at the Games themselves but through subsequent retrospective testing with a new ground-breaking test coming out for long-term metabolites.
And the reason he knew this was that he had discovered the test and published his findings in 2011, despite the fact he knew it could prove costly to Russians in the future. Why he did this remains a mystery.
And they were caught. Of the 140 athletes to have been disqualified from London 2012, more than a third are Russian. It’s still possible that more will be announced before 6 August, exactly eight years on since the end of the London games. After that, no more retesting can take place.
But in 2012, Rodchenkov already was moving to a new drugs regimen, famously known as the Duchess cocktail, containing three anabolic steroids – oxandrolone, metenolone and trenbolone, a drug used to enhance growth in farm animals. As yet, none of them are detectable using the long-term metabolite tests.
At the Sochi winter games, the cocktail was taken with alcohol to aid absorption – Chivas whisky for men, vermouth for women – and swilled around the mouth before being spat out. The drugs entered the body through the cells of the cheek.
If before the Russian doping machine had relied on giving athletes drugs during training, this time the Duchess cocktail was taken during the games too. As described in the documentary, Icarus, the Russians’ dirty urine samples were passed out of the Wada lab through a hole in the wall and swapped for clean samples that entered the lab via the same route.
The key to it was a technique the Russian security service, the FSB, had developed to open supposedly tamper-proof bottles with thin pieces of metal. It was cheating on an Olympic scale, and the hosts, to Putin’s delight, topped the medal table with 33 medals.
Rodchenkov – who had been jailed only three years earlier – was awarded by the Russian government with the Order of Friendship.
But the golden moment was shortlived. The house of cards started collapsing thanks to Russian whistleblowers, a German TV investigation in December 2014, and a subsequent Wada investigation, which in 2015 formally accused Russia of state-sponsored doping.
In the weeks after the publication of the Wada report, Rodchenkov says he was tipped off by a friend working at the Kremlin that his life was in danger so he packed his bags, kissed his wife and children goodbye and relocated to the US. He then co-operated with further investigations, including one by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren which detailed the Russian cheating at Sochi, and ultimately led to the ban on Russian track and field athletes and weightlifters from the Rio games.
In the years since, 28 athletes banned as a result of Rodchenkov’s testimony have had their bans overturned at the Court for Arbitration in Sport on grounds of insufficient evidence, but there is little sign of Russia cleaning up its act. In December, it was banned from all major sporting events for four years for tampering with laboratory data. Russia’s appeal against that ruling in November could shed more light on the contents of the lab’s database, potentially providing further evidence to corroborate Rodchenkov’s allegations.
Had Rodchenkov stayed in Russia, Walden says he knows how the story would have played out. In the space of two weeks in 2016, not long after his client’s departure, two former heads of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (Rusada), Vyacheslav Sinev and Nikita Kamaev, both died in suspicious circumstances.
According to Walden, the threat to Rodchenkov’s life remains serious even after the expulsion of the Russian diplomats.
“As long as Vladimir Putin is presiding over the current Russian gangster state, there is no relief for Dr Rodchenkov,” Walden says. “He literally has to look over his shoulder and be careful at every step of the way.”
Margarita Pakhnotskaya, who was brought into Rusada as its deputy director general to, as she puts it, “restore the functionality and image” of the organisation, is confident the Russian anti-doping system is now fit for purpose but admits more needs to be done to restore its reputation around the world.
“My motto in life is ‘Deeds Not Words,'” she says. “People can judge. But Rusada is absolutely different… it’s another story, different people, different processes. I feel that we are moving the right way.”
And as for Rodchenkov himself, does he come out as a villain or hero from the whole saga?
“Well he was a villain in the system as it was being practised at the time,” says Wada founding president, Dick Pound. “He’s now revealed it all at considerable personal expense and will live with apprehension for the rest of his life about efforts on the part of Russia to find him and either get him back to Russia or some other solution. And I don’t know if it makes him a hero, it certainly makes him courageous.”
Rodchenkov makes no secret of having taken drugs himself during his career as an athlete. Former Wada president John Fahey once told me a story about touring the London lab with Rodchenkov. As they passed a photograph of three runners, including the young Rodchenkov, the Russian scientist tapped on each individual saying, “Doper, doper, doper.”
And as for his own side of the story, his tell-all book, The Rodchenkov Affair, hit the shelves this week.
You may also be interested in:
Fearing for her safety, Russian 800m runner Yuliya Stepanova fled her country after she revealed the dirty secrets of doping in Russian athletics. She has been called the greatest whistleblower in the history of sport but what do people think of the athlete in her homeland?
Subscribe to the newsletter news
We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe