Taylor Hooton Foundation > Hoot’s Corner > General > Russian Insider Says State-Run Doping Fueled Olympic Gold
May 17, 2016
Russian Insider Says State-Run Doping Fueled Olympic Gold

Dozens of Russian athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, including at least 15 medal winners, were part of a state-run doping program, meticulously planned for years to ensure dominance at the Games, according to the director of the country’s antidoping laboratory at the time.

The director, Grigory Rodchenkov, who ran the laboratory that handled testing for thousands of Olympians, said he developed a three-drug cocktail of banned substances that he mixed with liquor and provided to dozens of Russian athletes, helping to facilitate one of the most elaborate — and successful — doping ploys in sports history.

It involved some of Russia’s biggest stars of the Games, including 14 members of its cross-country ski team and two veteran bobsledders who won two golds.

In a dark-of-night operation, Russian antidoping experts and members of the intelligence service surreptitiously replaced urine samples tainted by performance-enhancing drugs with clean urine collected months earlier, somehow breaking into the supposedly tamper-proof bottles that are the standard at international competitions, Dr. Rodchenkov said. For hours each night, they worked in a shadow laboratory lit by a single lamp, passing bottles of urine through a hand-size hole in the wall, to be ready for testing the next day, he said.

By the end of the Games, Dr. Rodchenkov estimated, as many as 100 dirty urine samples were expunged.

None of the athletes were caught doping. More important, Russia won the most medals of the Games, easily surpassing its main rival, the United States, and undermining the integrity of one of the world’s most prestigious sporting events.

“People are celebrating Olympic champion winners, but we are sitting crazy and replacing their urine,” Dr. Rodchenkov said. “Can you imagine how Olympic sport is organized?”

After The New York Times asked Russian officials to respond to the claims, Russia’s sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, released a statement to the news media calling the revelations “a continuation of the information attack on Russian sport.”

Dr. Rodchenkov laid out the details of the operation over three days of interviews that were arranged by an American filmmaker, Bryan Fogel, who is working on a documentary that involves Dr. Rodchenkov.

Dr. Rodchenkov’s account could not be independently verified, but it was consistent with the broad findings of a report published last year by the World Anti-Doping Agency. He provided The Times with emails detailing doping efforts and a spreadsheet that he said was sent to him by the sports ministry before the Sochi Games. It named the athletes involved in the doping program.

Dr. Rodchenkov described his own work at Sochi as a “strong accomplishment,” the apex of a decade-long effort to perfect Russia’s doping strategy at international competitions.

Grigory Rodchenkov, who ran the Sochi laboratory, said he developed a three-drug cocktail of banned substances that he provided to dozens of Russian athletes.

“We were fully equipped, knowledgeable, experienced and perfectly prepared for Sochi like never before,” he said. “It was working like a Swiss watch.”

After Sochi, Dr. Rodchenkov was awarded the prestigious Order of Friendship by President Vladimir V. Putin.

Six months ago, however, he had a dramatic change in fortune.

In November, the World Anti-Doping Agency identified Dr. Rodchenkov as the linchpin in what it described as an extensive state-sponsored doping program in Russia, accusing him of extorting money from athletes — the only accusation he denies — as well as covering up positive drug tests and destroying hundreds of urine samples.

After the report came out, Dr. Rodchenkov said, Russian officials forced him to resign. Fearing for his safety, he moved to Los Angeles, with the help of Mr. Fogel.

Back in Russia, two of Dr. Rodchenkov’s close colleagues died unexpectedlyin February, within weeks of each other; both were former antidoping officials, one who resigned soon after Dr. Rodchenkov fled the country.

The November report was primarily focused on track and field, but Dr. Rodchenkov described the whole spectrum of Russian sport as tainted by banned substances. Admitting to more than what WADA investigators accused him of, he said it was not hundreds of urine samples that he destroyed but rather several thousand in last-ditch efforts to mask the extent of the country’s doping.

Dr. Rodchenkov said he received the spreadsheet naming athletes on the doping program on Jan. 21, 2014, two weeks before the Games and shortly after he arrived in Sochi to begin work at the Olympic laboratory. It was to be used for reference during competition, Dr. Rodchenkov said, and outlined the competition schedule for each athlete. If any of them won a medal, their urine samples had to be substituted.

Until now, a precise accounting of how Russian officials could have executed such a complex doping operation was not publicly known.

Pressure to Win

Dr. Rodchenkov’s revelations, his first public comments since fleeing, come at a crucial moment for Russia. In November, in the wake of the WADA report, the country was provisionally suspended from international track and field competition; in the coming weeks, leaders of the sport’s global governing body will decide whether to lift a ban ahead of this summer’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Russia is also preparing to host the next World Cup, in 2018.

Responding to the cascade of accusations, Mr. Putin called for an inquiry, but Russian officials have been largely dismissive of claims about widespread doping by the country’s athletes.

The antidoping laboratory for the 2014 Olympics was situated at the Olympic Park in Sochi, Russia.CreditLeon Neal/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Times submitted questions about the revelations to the sports ministry and six of its sports federations whose athletes were identified as part of the doping program. Instead of responding directly, Mr. Mutko, the minister, organized a news conference with journalists from the state-run news agency TASS, calling The Times’s inquiry baseless and suggesting it was part of an attempt to discredit Russian sports ahead of the Rio Games.

“The system of organization of the Olympic Games was completely transparent,” Mr. Mutko told TASS. “Everything was under the control of international experts — from the collection of samples to their analysis.”

Dr. Rodchenkov said the sports ministry actively guided the doping effort. In the six months before the Games, he said, he met with Mr. Mutko’s deputy, Yuri Nagornykh, in a second-floor office at the ministry’s palatial Moscow headquarters at least once a week.

In an email, Mr. Nagornykh denied the existence of a doping program. “I have nothing to hide,” he wrote.

Russian officials were under enormous pressure ahead of the Games. Sochi was to be a showcase of Russia’s resurgence as a global power, and the entire country was enlisted in the project. Billions of dollars were spent transforming the shabby subtropical resort town into a winter sports paradise. Mr. Putin himself had negotiated Russia’s Olympic bid and was personally involved in much of the planning.

Hanging over everything was Russia’s disastrous sixth-place finish in the medal count at the previous Winter Olympics, in Vancouver, British Columbia. It would not matter if the world was wowed by the opening ceremony, or if the ski lifts ran smoothly.

Dr. Rodchenkov said it was up to him to ensure that Russian athletes won the most medals, preferably gold ones.

He had been the director of Russia’s antidoping laboratory in Moscow since 2005, and was widely considered among the world’s top experts in performance-enhancing drugs. He often experimented with such drugs on himself, he said.

He published papers in peer-reviewed journals, traveled often to scientific conferences abroad and was a frequent guest at the annual antidoping symposium organized by the United States Anti-Doping Agency, most recently in October in Lansdowne, Va., just a month before he was forced to step down.

By his own admission, Dr. Rodchenkov, who has a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry, used his expertise to help athletes properly use banned substances and go undetected, which he says was done at the behest of the Russian government. After years of trial and error, he said, he developed a cocktail of three anabolic steroids — metenolone, trenbolone and oxandrolone — that he claims many top-level Russian athletes used leading up to the London Olympics in 2012 and throughout the Sochi Games.

He said he did not administer the drugs himself but rather provided them to the sports ministry.

The drugs, Dr. Rodchenkov said, helped athletes recover quickly after grueling training regimens, allowing them to compete in top form over successive days.

To speed up absorption of the steroids and shorten the detection window, he dissolved the drugs in alcohol — Chivas whiskey for men, Martini vermouth for women.

Dr. Rodchenkov’s formula was precise: one milligram of the steroid mixture for every milliliter of alcohol. The athletes were instructed to swish the liquid around in their mouths, under the tongue, to absorb the drugs.

In the interviews, Dr. Rodchenkov boasted about his ability to shield doped athletes from detection. Even so, Russia had the highest number of athletes caught doping in 2014, according to WADA statistics.

Dr. Rodchenkov said that some of his athletes would at times take drugs he had not approved, making them vulnerable to discovery. “All athletes are like small children,” he said. “They’ll put anything you give them into their mouths.”

A case in point, he said, was Elena Lashmanova, a gold medalist in racewalking at the 2012 London Games. She had tested positive for banned substances while international observers were scrutinizing his lab, and to cover up her results would have endangered the entire operation, he said.

In an email to Mr. Nagornykh, the deputy sports minister, dated April 18, 2014, he wrote that there was nothing he could do to protect Ms. Lashmanova without risking the lab’s accreditation.

“Honestly, this lawlessness has reached its logical conclusion,” he wrote. “There can be no second opinion about this.”

Three months later, Ms. Lashmanova was suspended from international competition for two years.

Planning for Sochi

For Dr. Rodchenkov, preparations for Sochi began in earnest in the fall of 2013. It was around that time, he said, that a man he came to believe was working for the Russian internal intelligence service, the F.S.B., began showing up at the lab in Moscow, inquiring about the bottles used for storing the urine samples tested for banned substances.

The man took a particular interest in the toothed metal rings that lock the bottles when the cap is twisted shut. He collected hundreds of them, Dr. Rodchenkov said.

An employee at the lab, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals from the authorities, said that at some point it was communicated to employees that the man was there to “protect the lab.” He would pepper people with questions about the bottles, the employee said, but always in a friendly way. While his motivations were not explicit, they eventually became obvious to those working in the lab.

“It was clear that he was going to try to get into the bottles,” the employee said.

At all major international athletic competitions, athletes are required to submit a urine sample for testing. The sample is divided into two bottles. One, the A bottle, is tested immediately; the other, the B bottle, is sealed and stored for up to 10 years, in case the athlete’s past performance is ever called into question. A Swiss company, Berlinger, produces the self-locking glass bottles used for international competitions, including the Olympics.

Because of the strict testing protocols at competitions, Dr. Rodchenkov said, athletes typically have to halt the use of banned substances before an event to avoid testing positive. But in hosting the Sochi Games, national sports officials saw an opportunity: They could control the antidoping lab results, he said, and allow athletes to use performance-enhancing drugs throughout competition.

Getting into the bottles was the key.

How exactly this was accomplished is still a mystery. Dr. Rodchenkov claims that at some point several weeks before the start of the Games, the man he believed to be an F.S.B. agent presented him with a previously sealed bottle that had been opened, its uniquely numbered cap intact.

“When I first time saw that bottle is open, I did not believe my eyes,” he said, adding: “I truly believed this was tamper proof.”

Swapping Out Dirty Urine

In the months before Sochi, according to the November WADA report, international doping officials had threatened to revoke the accreditation of Dr. Rodchenkov’s lab because of suspicious discrepancies in sample results and complaints of “external interferences” in the lab’s operations. In November 2013, a disciplinary committee convened in Johannesburg to review the case.

“Despite the substandard performance of the laboratory, there was a distinct desire not to revoke the accreditation of the laboratory prior to the Sochi Olympics,” last year’s WADA report said.

The testing laboratory for the Sochi Games had a staff of nearly 100 people, including employees of Dr. Rodchenkov’s lab in Moscow as well as dozens of international antidoping experts, flown in from cities like Beijing; Doha, Qatar; and Lausanne, Switzerland.

Security was tight. There were numerous surveillance cameras, and anyone wishing to enter the lab required security clearance.

An independent observer watched over the lab at random times of day, WADA said, but rarely worked overnight during the roughly two weeks of competition.

The hole in the wall (covered by a removable cap) through which tainted urine samples were passed and replaced by clean samples during the Sochi Games, according to Dr. Rodchenkov.CreditGrigory Rodchenkov, via Bryan Fogel, ICARUS DOCUMENTARY FILM
Dr. Rodchenkov said that each night, a sports ministry official would send him a list of athletes whose samples needed to be swapped. To match the individual athletes to their anonymous samples — which are coded with a seven-digit number — Dr. Rodchenkov said that athletes snapped pictures of their sample forms, including the code, and texted them to the ministry, offering forbidden insight into whose urine was whose.

After receiving a signal that “the urines were ready,” he changed from his lab coat into a Russian national team sweatshirt and left his fourth-floor office, typically after midnight. He checked that the coast was clear and made his way to Room 124, officially a storage space that he and his team had converted into a shadow laboratory.

There, he said, with the room’s single window blacked out with tape, the switch would be made.

A colleague stationed next door in the sample collection room would retrieve the correct bottles and pass them into the storage room through a circular hole cut through the wall near the floor, Dr. Rodchenkov said. During the day, he said, the hole was concealed by a small imitation-wood cabinet.

The sealed B bottles were handed over to the man Dr. Rodchenkov believed was a Russian intelligence officer, who would take them to an adjacent building. Within hours, Dr. Rodchenkov said, the bottles were returned to the storage room, their caps unlocked.

That man also supplied clean urine, collected from each of the athletes months prior to the Olympics, before they started doping, Dr. Rodchenkov said. It was delivered in soda bottles, baby formula bottles and other miscellaneous containers, he said.

Making sure to keep the overhead light off, Dr. Rodchenkov and a colleague dumped the tainted urine into a nearby toilet, washed out the bottles, dried them with filter paper and filled them with the clean urine.

He would then add table salt or water to balance out any inconsistencies in the recorded specifications of the two samples. Depending on what an athlete had consumed, two urine samples taken at different times could vary.

Typically, the small team worked till dawn, breaking only occasionally for instant coffee and cigarettes.


In the Sochi Games, Russian athletes won 33 medals — including 13 golds, 10 more than at the previous Winter Olympics.

A third of all medals were awarded to athletes whose names appeared on the spreadsheet outlining the government’s doping plan that Dr. Rodchenkov said was provided by the sports ministry before the Games.

Alexander Legkov, a cross-country skier, is among the Olympic champions listed on a spreadsheet, provided by the sports ministry before the Sochi Games, that outlined the government’s doping plan, Dr. Rodchenkov said.CreditChang W. Lee/The New York Times

They included Alexander Zubkov, a veteran bobsledder who won two golds; Alexander Legkov, a cross-country skier who won gold and silver; and Alexander Tretyakov, who won gold in the skeleton competition.

Still, not all athletes on the list won a medal. The entire women’s hockey team was doping throughout the Games, Dr. Rodchenkov said. It finished in sixth place.

Efforts to reach these athletes and others through their sports federations in Russia were unsuccessful. Several of the federations replied and denied any wrongdoing by their athletes. A spokesperson for the Russian Bobsled Federation said that all of its athletes “underwent doping control procedures in accordance to the rules.”

“All of them were clean, and not one positive result was found.”

The International Olympic Committee called Dr. Rodchenkov’s account “very detailed and very worrying” on Thursday. “We ask the World Anti-Doping Agency to investigate immediately,” a spokesman said.

WADA officials were in board meetings on Thursday and unavailable for interviews. The agency had previously said it was looking into allegations of Russian doping and the Sochi lab and did not add anything further by email.

Southern California

After the Olympics, the praise directed at Dr. Rodchenkov was effusive. He received commendations from not only Mr. Putin, but also the International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency.

A subsequent report published by WADA called Sochi “a milestone in the evolution of the Olympic Games antidoping program.”

The next year, however, WADA published a very different report which said investigators had found systematic doping among Russian track and field athletes. That inquiry, prompted by accusations from two whistle-blowers in Russian athletics — first published by the German public broadcaster ARD — put Dr. Rodchenkov squarely at the center of a national conspiracy.

Within days, he was forced to resign, he said, and fearing for his safety, fled to Los Angeles. His travel was arranged by Mr. Fogel, whom he had first met just after Sochi, in 2014. Mr. Fogel was working on a documentary seeking to expose shortcomings in drug-testing for international sport — charting his own competition results with and without banned drugs — and Dr. Rodchenkov served as his adviser.

In his six months in Los Angeles, Dr. Rodchenkov has taken on a more active role in that documentary, “Icarus,” to be released in September. He has otherwise spent his time gardening, making borscht and writing in his diary.

Reflecting on his career, he said he was unapologetic about his role in Russia’s doping program, considering it a condition of his employment. To receive funding and support for his lab, he said, he had to do the Kremlin’s bidding.

He had occasionally, however, run afoul of the Russian authorities in his work. In 2011, he was investigated for trafficking in performance-enhancing drugs, and he said he fully expected to go to prison. His sister was convicted and imprisoned on similar charges.

The investigation into Dr. Rodchenkov, however, disappeared.

He said he could not be sure why, but he suspected that he had been spared punishment so that he could play a crucial role at the Sochi Games.

“It’s my redemption: success in Sochi,” he said. “Instead of being in prison, win at any cost.”