Russia’s Ministry of Sport covered up positive doping results by hundreds of elite athletes in both Summer and Winter Olympic sports, the World Anti-Doping Agency found. Russian athletes got away with drug cheating in at least 30 sports, WADA said, most prolifically in track and field and weightlifting, but also in swimming, cycling, skating, ice hockey and even table tennis.
Cheating athletes were aided by Russian intelligence agents from the FSB – a successor agency to the KGB – who devised a method to crack open supposedly tamper-proof sample bottles in an elaborate covert scheme at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi to replace tainted urine of Russian athletes with clean urine. One FSB agent even posed as a plumber to gain access to the doping lab at the Sochi games after hours, the report stated.
“It was a fail-safe method of permitting cheating Russian athletes to compete while using performance-enhancing substances,” said Richard McLaren, a Canadian lawyer and sports ethics expert who led the investigation, in a Monday morning news conference in Toronto.
In a statement replete with Cold War overtones, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the WADA report “a dangerous relapse of politics’ interference into sports,” and decried the investigation’s primary source – Grigory Rodchenkov, the former director of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory in Moscow – as “a man of scandalous reputation.” Putin said government officials named in the report will be suspended while his nation conducts its own investigation, but he demanded WADA provide evidence supporting its findings.
Russian sports ministry officials have acknowledged a “culture of doping” in the country but have denied allegations of government involvement. Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s minister of sport, has said he had no knowledge of any doping regime run by Rodchenkov. WADA’s report directly contradicted Mutko and also identified Natalia Zhelanova — an anti-doping advisor of Mutko’s who has led Russia’s sports ministry’s public relations response to doping accusations — as having played a central role in helping Russian athletes cheat in 2012 and 2013.
WADA does not have the authority to ban a nation’s athletes from an Olympic Games, which the agency noted in its recommendations. The International Olympic Committee’s executive board will discuss possible sanctions Tuesday in a conference call, according to a statement released by IOC President Thomas Bach.
“The findings of the report show a shocking and unprecedented attack on the integrity of sport and on the Olympic Games. Therefore, the IOC will not hesitate to take the toughest sanctions available against any individual or organization implicated,” Bach said.
In June, the IOC announced it was up to individual sports federations to decide whether to permit Russian athletes to compete in Rio. The International Association of Athletics Federations – the global organization that oversees track and field – has imposed a ban on Russian track and field athletes competing in international events that will effectively bar the global superpower’s track team from the Rio Games.
Other sports federations, however, have expressed disagreement with the push by some anti-doping officials for a wholesale ban of Russian athletes from Rio. On Monday, FIG, the international gymnastics federation, released a statement calling for Russian gymnasts to be allowed to compete in Rio. There is no evidence in the WADA report released Monday that specifically identifies Russian gymnasts doping.
“Blanket bans have never been and will never be just,” FIG President Bruno Grandi said in a statement.
U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart released a statement Monday renewing his previous calls for a complete ban of Russian athletes from Rio.
“The McLaren Report has concluded, beyond a reasonable doubt, a mind-blowing level of corruption within both Russian sport and government,” Tygart said. “We must come together as an international community – comprised of those who truly believe in the spirit of Olympism – to ensure this unprecedented level of criminality never again threatens the sports we cherish.”
An entire nation’s athletes have never been banned from an Olympics for competitive violations. The IOC has banned countries previously for geopolitical reasons, such as a long-running ban of South Africa until 1992 because of apartheid.
WADA’s actions Monday marked a stark reversal for an agency that has been criticized by some in anti-doping enforcement circles for perceived fecklessness. A whistleblower from Russia’s anti-doping agency first approached WADA in early 2010 alleging government-run doping, but WADA didn’t commission an investigation until 2015, after German network ARD broadcast a documentary based on the whistleblower’s allegations and other evidence of government complicity in drug cheating.
This latest WADA investigation was triggered by Rodchenkov’s claims – published in May by the New York Times – that he synthesized a steroid cocktail for Russian athletes and participated in a scheme at the 2014 Winter Olympics to secretly replace urine samples. Rodchenkov cooperated with WADA investigators, McLaren said, and provided them with evidence that corroborated his claims, including a spreadsheet of 37 athletes he helped cheat. The report did not disclose the identities of the athletes.
Other evidence emerged that confirmed Rodchenkov’s allegations, McLaren said. With the assistance of a microscope, WADA investigators found scratch marks indicating tampering inside bottles containing urine samples taken from Russian athletes at the Sochi Games. DNA testing of urine samples kept from prior Olympics uncovered one unnamed female Russian gold medalist whose urine sample contained the DNA of at least two people. Forensic testing of other Russian urine samples found excessively high levels of salt, aligning with Rodchenkov’s allegation he added table salt to clean urine samples as part of the Sochi scheme.
“He is the central person in this investigation, but not the only person,” McLaren said of Rodchenkov. “I’m confident he was telling me the truth.”
Before 2010, Rodchenkov told investigators, doping was widespread in Russian athletics but mostly run by coaches. After the “abysmal medal count” at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Russian sports ministry officials including Mutko hatched a more robust doping system to ensure more Russian medals in Sochi.
Every time a Russian athlete was caught cheating by the Moscow anti-doping lab, according to the report, one of the lab employees would inform a sports ministry official, who would then send back one of two orders: “SAVE” for a positive doping test that would be covered up, “QUARANTINE” for a cheating Russian athlete the lab would actually report in an international doping test database. Athletes who were deemed medal prospects almost always benefited from “SAVE” orders, while “unpromising” athletes would be flagged to international sports agencies for doping.
After growing concerned about the quality of steroids used by Russian athletes, Rodchenkov said, he created a cocktail mixing anabolic steroids including oral turinabol and liquor (Chivas whiskey for men, vermouth for women) that he directed athletes to consume by swishing around in their mouths but not swallowing. One Russian sports official nicknamed the drinks “Duchess,” after a traditional Russian cocktail.
The WADA report noted that “while Dr. Rodchenkov’s ‘cocktail’ may sound fanciful,” scientists confirmed that recipe and method of consumption would shorten the window of possible detection to three-to-five days.
In his report, McLaren observed that Russia’s cheating regime appeared to be designed so that, if someone such as Rodchenkov went public, government officials could have enough plausible deniability to try to escape culpability.
“It appears that the system was designed so that if its actions were revealed, the Moscow Laboratory could be jettisoned without damaging or revealing other parts of the drug cheating program,” McLaren wrote. “In the case of discovery, the jaws of the vice would close and any convenient explanation blaming the Moscow Laboratory would operate to cover up the rest of the state-run system.”