Throughout the years, the sporting world has been rife with scandal. But one Russian doping plot would soon become known as one of the world’s biggest and most shocking sports scandals ever. What’s more, its roots lead up from thousands of Olympic athletes — all the way to the Russian government itself. So how did they (nearly) get away with it?
The Biggest Sports Scandal In History
The year 2014 was supposed to be an incredible year for Russian sports. The country was selected to host that year’s Winter Olympic Games, the most expensive in the history of the games. Russia would go on to win the most medals of the games, with 9 bronze, 9 silver, and 11 gold medals. But things are not always as they seem.
The year 2014 would end up being the year that would blow the lid off of one of the biggest scandals in the history of sports. It would reveal a government conspiracy that would seemingly lead all the way to the top of Russian politics. By the end, sports legacies were tarnished, investigations were launched, lives would be lost, and one man would go on to flee the country in fear for his life.
The Lab Where It All Started
The biggest sports scandal in history began with Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov. He was known as the director of one of the most highly praised labs in the anti-doping world, located in Moscow. However, later he would be known as one of the world’s most famous whistle-blowers. At the time, he had built a career as being one of the top experts on performance-enhancing substances banned from the sports world.
Rodchenkov had run the laboratory since 2005. The lab was responsible for testing urine samples of athletes for banned substances, such as steroids. The problem was that these powerful drugs were becoming increasingly common, while the quality and safety of the drugs was on a steady decline. It was at this moment in time when trouble first began for Rodchenkov.
A Crack Down
With organizations like the World Anti-Doping Agency cracking down on the drugs, athletes were turning to dangerous means in order to get their hands on the drugs. That’s where Rodchenkov stepped in. He began to provide athletes with safe forms of the drugs. His patients included his sister, who was a runner. Police quickly caught on.
Rodchenkov was eventually caught after his sister, Marina, was found with substances. The allegations threatened the career that Rodchenkov had spent his entire life building, and his reputation looked like it had been ruined. Falling into a deep depression as charges mounted, Rodchenkov felt that his only way out was by doing something drastic.
Rodchenkov Faces Jail Time
In 2008, Rodchenkov entered his bathroom with the intention of taking his own life. Instead, he was found by his wife, rushed to the hospital, and lived through the incident. But he definitely was not out of the woods yet. He was still facing criminal charges, and now on top of that, he was on suicide watch.
Rodchenkov was placed in a psychiatric clinic with what he would later describe as “the worst of the worst criminals.” But after just two months in the facility, his charges were mysteriously dropped. It was a move Rodchenkov said people at the top of the Russian government approved themselves. Instead, he said, Russian President Vladimir Putin (who was then Prime Minister) had other plans for the scientist.
The Start of a Scandal
According to Rodchenkov, Putin personally “took [him] from the prison for such a special affair” to lend his expertise and advise on anti-doping efforts. Suddenly, he became the Russian government’s go-to guy on everything having to do with all of the banned substances.
Rodchenkov began advising athletes who were doping. He conducted tests in order to learn exactly how long it took for drugs to completely leave their systems. Athletes would then use this information to learn exactly how far ahead of testing they would need to cease using performance enhancing drugs. Soon enough, the mission changed to something much more sinister.
Perfecting The Recipe
After years of development, Rodchenkov was able to create the “perfect” cocktail of banned, performance-enhancing drugs. He would combine metenolone, trenbolone, and oxandrolone, all banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency. He then mixed them into alcohol. Men would take their mixture with Chivas whiskey. Female athletes would receive their cocktail with Martini vermouth.
Instead of administering the drugs himself, Rodchenkov says he would supply them to Russia’s sports ministry, who would pass them on to the athletes. In the lead-up to the Olympic Games in 2012, Rodchenkov says dozens of Russian athletes were using the drug and alcohol mixture. But this was only the start of the gigantic plan Russia ultimately had in mind.
Winning The Olympics
Athletes all over the country were testing Rodchenkov’s methods with success. Meanwhile, the Russian government all the way up to Putin was pushing to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, and the efforts paid off. Sochi was officially chosen to be the host city for the upcoming Winter Olympics.
Hosting the Olympics was an important goal for Russia. Putin himself allegedly wanted Russia to prove its worth on the world stage, especially after the country only won an unsatisfying 15 medals — a 6th place finish — at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. But now that Russia had secured its hosting position, the government’s doping plan could finally go into full effect.
Snooping Around The Lab
The preparations for the Winter Olympics began in Rodchenkov’s lab in the fall of 2013, or at least that is how it seemed. It was then that a man whom Rodchenkov and his colleagues had never seen before began to snoop around his world renowned anti-doping laboratory.
The man, whom Rodchenkov believed was from the Russian Internal Intelligence Service (known as the FSB), began to ask pointed questions about the testing process. But there was one particular aspect of the lab that the man seemed to be extremely interested in. Rodchenkov’s employees quickly became alarmed. These questions, that began as a whisper, would ultimately become the basis for the plot that would change sports history.
A Clear Directive
An employee at the lab who would later speak with the New York Times confirmed that there had been a mysterious man snooping around the facility in Moscow. The employee said that they were told that the man was there to “protect the lab.” But soon enough, his real mission soon became extremely clear.
The man seemed to be obsessed with the specific tamper-proof lock system found in urine sample bottles. Once a sample was given, the bottles were designed to lock in a way that could not be broken and was seemingly tamper-proof. “It was clear that he was going to try to get into the bottles,” the employee said. For the Russian government, getting into the bottles was key.
Achieving The Impossible
Rodchenkov and his team were gearing up for the massive task of working with the anti-doping agencies as the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi were quickly approaching. It was then that he got one of the most jaw dropping surprises of his life.
Just a few weeks before the games, the man that Rodchenkov claimed to be an FSB agent approached him with a breakthrough. He handed Rodchenkov a previously-sealed bottle that had been opened. “When I first time saw that bottle is open, I did not believe my eyes,” he said to the New York Times. “I truly believed it was tamper-proof.” With this step out of the way, the real mission began.
Dodging The World’s Tightest Security
Rodchenkov and his team moved to a lab in Sochi just before the games. By that time, the mission was underway. A staff of nearly 100 anti-doping experts (including members of Rodchenkov’s lab), as well as experts flown in from Qatar and Switzerland, all began to work at the Sochi lab.
The state-of-the-art laboratory also came with an extremely advanced security system. Surveillance cameras were set up throughout the facility, and representatives from the World Anti-Doping Agency were overseeing each lab. Meanwhile, Rodchenkov said that 100 FSB agents were also at the games. They were on stand-by to carry out their mission.
The Mission Starts With A List
On February 7, 2014, the Winter Olympic Games officially opened in Sochi. For the thousands of athletes that were slated to compete that year, the start of the games were the culmination of years of practice and hard work. But for some, behind the scenes, it was the start of a plot that would shake the world of sports.
Every day of the games, Rodchenkov says that an official from the Russian Sports Ministry, who answered directly to Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, would send him a list of athletes whose urine samples needed to be swapped. At that point, Rodchenkov would wait patiently for nightfall, when his work really began.
Under The Cloak Of Darkness
During the day, World Anti-Doping Agency officials were everywhere in the Sochi laboratory. But at night, rarely did Rodchenkov see any of the agency’s representatives. So every night, Rodchenkov would wait to get a message that signaled that “the urines were ready.” He would change from his lab coat into a Russian National Team sweatshirt, which he’d stored in his fourth-floor office.
Once he’d finished changing, he would make sure that the lab was empty. Then, he would move to Room 124, or as the New York Times describes it, “a storage space that he and his team had converted into a shadow laboratory.” There, he would wait.
The Big Switch
Once Rodchenkov reached Room 124, a colleague who he believed was part of the FSB would be standing by next door in a sample collection room. That colleague would retrieve the bottles of the athletes on the list. Then, the agent would sneak them through a circular hole hidden in the wall that was covered by a bookshelf during the daytime.
The bottles were moved to a facility close by, where the seemingly tamper-proof bottles would be opened. It was then up to Rodchenkov to replace these “dirty” samples with clean ones, with had been collected from athletes months before. Rodchenkov and his team would sit back and wait for the results to come in.
The Final Results
Rodchenkov said that he would work all through the night switching dirty samples with clean ones. During those hours, Rodchenkov says that he replaced hundreds of samples, including those of some of the most well-known and well-decorated athletes in Russian sports.
In the end, the mission accomplished exactly what President Putin had hoped it would. Russia had collected 11 gold, 9 silver, and 9 bronze medals, winning more than any other country at the Sochi Winter Olympics. The plan had worked out exactly as it was supposed to, with no urine coming back from Russian athletes testing positive for drugs. But if Russian officials thought they had gotten away with the scheme, they were definitely wrong.
The Names On The List
Officials who were in on this Russian doping scheme had thought they had finally beat the system. But little did they know that Rodchenkov held tightly on to the lists that he was sent nightly. A third of all the medals won that year were given to athletes whose names were on those very same lists.
Those names would reportedly include Alexander Zubkov, a bobsledder who’d won two gold medals, Alexander Legkov, a silver and gold medal winner in cross-country skiing, and Alexander Tretyakov, who also took home gold in the skeleton competition. They even included the entire Russian women’s hockey team. And this powder keg of power players was about to burst.
Working Under Scrutiny
Rodchenkov’s problems began shortly after the Olympic committees had left Sochi. The Independent Commission from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) were looking into allegations against Rodchenkov. They said that he had accepted and requested money in order to create false negatives on urine tests for athletes. The Commission sent WADA representatives to come inspect Rodchenkov’s lab in Moscow.
The commission’s findings were shocking. The report concluded that “Rodchenkov had personally instructed and authorized the disposal of 1,417 samples” so that officials could not test them. It was at this point that the Russian doping scandal turned from a shadowy backroom operation to something much darker — and even deadly.
Doping And Death
Fearing for his life, Rodchenkov fled from Russia to the United States. At the time, he was being featured the Netflix documentary Icarus. The documentary’s director, Bryan Fogel, facilitated and later filmed Rodchenkov’s arrival to Los Angeles. News that soon followed would prove Rodchenkov’s darkest fears to be true.
Shortly after Rodchenkov moved, and two months after the scandal first broke, he got horrifying news. Two of the other Russian anti-doping experts that were implicated in WADA’s report, Vyacheslav Sinyev and Rodchenkov’s friend Nikita Kamaev, had died, suddenly and unexpectedly. Was this the work of the Russian government? Rodchenkov decided the only way to save his life was to speak out.
Leaking The Story
On May 13, 2016, the New York Times ran a story that would go on to change the world of sports and would tear the lid right off of the biggest doping scandal in sports history. Rodchenkov had taken all of his documents and stories to the Times, and told reporters about the entire operation.
The story was damning. In it, Rodchenkov outlined not only how the entire Russian doping scandal took place and the “meticulous planning” behind it, but how the state-run program could be traced back all the way up the government chain of command to President Putin. The world stood by in shock. WADA immediately opened an investigation — and their findings would be even worse than anything they could have imagined.
A Full Investigation
Immediately following the publication of the New York Times story, representatives from WADA tracked down Rodchenkov seeking an interview of their own. Rodchenkov handed over all of his documents to investigators, hoping to finally bring to light what he knew had been happening all along.
The investigation was taken up by an independent investigator named Professor Richard McLaren. And while WADA officials knew that they would likely find foul play behind Russia’s Olympic wins, they had no idea the scale of what they were about to uncover. The story was so bizarre that it seemed to be surely fabricated or exaggerated. But soon, they would find that it was even worse than they could have imagined.
The Final Findings
On July 18, 2016, WADA’s independent investigator released his final findings. “Of the set of samples suspected of being swapped,” McLaren said, “we were able to confirm 100 percent had evidence of tampering” and called the swap part of a “state directed, fail safe system.”
The findings were unmistakable. Inspectors were able to see scratches on the insides of bottles that signaled that they had been tampered with. The report said that there were more than 1,000 Russian athletes across every single sport that were part of the conspiracy. The scandal had truly reached farther than anyone had ever suspected. But this was just the beginning.
McLaren concluded his report by recommending that the entire Russian athletics team be banned from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Even with all of the information outlined in WADA’s report, the final decision was left up to the International Olympics Committee. The committee ultimately rejected WADA’s recommendation, allowing Russians to compete in the upcoming Olympics.
Russia continued to deny any wrongdoing, saying that the government had no idea that the sample-switching or doping had taken place. The Russian Sports Minister, Vitaly Mutko, who had been implicated in the scandal, was even promoted to deputy prime minister. Russia approved anti-doping laws that targeted coaches. But investigators did not let up the pressure to catch Russia in the act. Would they finally be punished?
With increasing pressure coming from people across the sports world, WADA performed a full investigation on Rodchenkov’s former lab in Moscow. But when they were finally handed over the necessary information from the Russian government, something was off. Investigators found emails within the system seeming to indicate it was Rodchenkov fully running the show, rather than just taking orders.
Upon further investigation, WADA found that the emails had also been tampered with, manipulated to implicate Rodchenkov. This was the final straw that pushed investigators and the anti-doping community over the edge. Something finally had to be done about this Russian doping scandal.
On December 9, 2019, the World Anti-Doping Agency officially banned Russia from participating in all international sports for four years. This ban covered the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, as well as the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, as punishment for the country’s state-sponsored doping scandal.
For the Russian athletes who had not partaken in the widespread doping, they would still be allowed to compete in the Games, but not for Russia. They would be obliged to compete as neutral players under a neutral title. For the athletes who had spent years training to represent their country on an Olympic stage, the news was devastating. And yet another mystery still lingered.
Not The End
Despite the mountains of evidence that had been uncovered by the World Anti-Doping Agency against Russia, and despite all of the proof the agency has pointing to the fact that Russia’s doping scandal was part of a state-run effort, Russian officials continue to deny any wrongdoing. All fingers are pointed at Dr. Rodchenkov.
Today, the whereabouts of Rodchenkov are unknown. He was placed in witness protection shortly after the investigations began. Since then, he has communicated only through a lawyer, saying the Russian government has tried and failed to extradite him to face charges. All anyone does know is this: Rodchenkov not only pulled off the biggest sports scandal in history — he also exposed it.
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