Grigory Rodchenkov was head of Russia’s ‘anti-doping’ centre but, in 2015, he fled to the US." Cheating, lying and denying are fundamental to political life in Russia, Grigory Rodchenkov.
in front of me is wearing a disguise. We are talking on Skype. I’m at my home
near London and Dr Grigory Rodchenkov is at an undisclosed location somewhere
in America, guarded 24/7 by armed FBI agents. How is he? “My life is good. My
mood is very good,” he says. He’s grinning, I think. Since he’s wearing a black
scarf over his face and dark glasses, it’s hard to tell.
cloak-and-dagger atmospherics surrounding our interview might seem a little
overblown. Until, that is, you remember, Vladimir Putin’s roving assassins are
trying to establish Rodchenkov’s secret location so they can snuff him out, a
traitor to the state. Russia’s president has a long list of enemies. But
Rodchenkov – the most significant sports whistleblower of the 21st century – is
probably at the top.
was director of Moscow’s anti-doping centre. The super-lab’s name is a
misnomer. As Rodchenkov recounts in a gripping memoir, The Rodchenkov Affair,
he ran Russia’s doping programme. He developed a novel drugs cocktail to help
his country win. It featured three nearly undetectable anabolic steroids.
Athletes swished it around the mouth, mixed with Chivas Royal or vermouth.
state-sponsored doping operation was a highly sophisticated affair, refined
over many years. And a successful one. Moscow cheated its way to medals in
successive international competitions. They included the 2012 London Olympics,
the “dirtiest in history”, according to Rodchenkov. The fraud reached its
apogee at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, hosted by Putin and a moment of
did the Russian president know? According to Rodchenkov, the lot. “He knew
about this operation. He was informed on a regular basis, yes,” he says. After
each doping episode, Russia’s sports minister Vitaly Mutko – a simple loyalist,
in the book – would pop in and brief the president. Typically, Putin would ask
if there was anything Mutko needed. “The state’s role is absolutely clear,”
cold war, doping was rife across the Soviet bloc. Rodchenkov recalls how as a
promising student athlete he first took performance-enhancing drugs in 1981,
while sitting on the sofa of his Moscow apartment. His mother, a medic,
injected a steroid called retabolil into his right buttock. “The drug felt
intoxicating. I could feel energy pouring into my gluteus maximus, the most
powerful muscle in a runner’s body,” he writes.
read chemistry at Moscow State University. In the mid-1980s he got a job at the
USSR’s doping- control lab. He thrived there, and rose to run the facility
after elbowing out his boss. Rodchenkov admits in his career to covering up
hundreds of positive doping results for Russian sportsmen and women, many of
them stars. He says he coordinated this programme with Kremlin politicians and
top sporting officials.
politics, Putin was determined as president to project Russia as a great power.
In the sporting arena, however, things were going less well. In 2010, he was
disappointed by the Russian team’s failure at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver,
where it won just three gold medals. Sport and ideology go hand in hand; as the
Sochi Games loomed, Putin gave orders for Russia’s performance to be improved
as a matter of urgency, the whistleblower says.
Rodchenkov how we should feel about the London Olympics? At the time they felt
magical. We now know, thanks to his revelations, that there was rampant Moscow
cheating. Rodchenkov acknowledges the Games were exceptionally dirty and blames
in part the “poor analytical performance” of the UK’s anti-doping lab at
Harlow, Essex. It failed to spot 126 positive doping cases, he says, including
82 in track and field.
time the Sochi Games arrived, Moscow had taken its doping operation to a giddy
level. Rodchenkov says Putin sent in the FSB, the secret spy agency he once
headed. A group of FSB officers were covertly inserted into Rodchenkov’s doping
control team. The spies made a miraculous breakthrough: they discovered how to
open tamper-proof bottles used in urine control tests. Positive samples could
be replaced with clean ones.
likens the backroom drama at Sochi to a thriller. “It was Ian Fleming! It was
James Bond number two!” he says, with a note of pride. His lab perfected what
he calls a “swapping system”. In advance of the Games, Russian Olympians
produced clean urine samples. These were carefully stored. The athletes –
especially the older ones, who got the most benefit – then swigged Rodchenkov’s
potent drugs cocktail.
purpose-built Sochi lab where the urine samples from Olympic athletes would be
taken after each event, Rodechnkov’s assistant,Yuri Chizhov, drilled a small
hole in the wall. This was in room 125. The room connected with room 124, where
the FSB had pre-stored clean urine samples in a fridge. Working in the dead of
night, the scientists and the spooks exchanged bottles, as the athletes’
samples arrived. “It was a watertight fraud,” Rodchenkov recalls. “There were
no security cameras.” Western doping-control inspectors who occasionally
dropped by spotted nothing amiss; the mouse-hole looked like an inoperative
power socket. “They were extremely naive. They couldn’t understand or estimate
the magnitude of our lies and falsification,” he tells me. An FSB officer,
Evgeny Blokhin, oversaw the entire operation, disguised as an innocent plumber.
Rodchenkov describes Blokhin as a “pure foot soldier” from the provinces who
“fulfilled orders”. He regards the Russian athletes who took part in the fraud
as witting cheats. They knew that the state perks that went with Olympic status
were dependent on keeping their mouth shut. Most of them did.
long been fascinated by the motivations of those who work for Putin’s shadow
state: why do it? Between 2007-2011, the FSB broke repeatedly into my flat when
I was the Guardian and Observer’s correspondent in Moscow, a small platoon of
ghosts. Rodchenkov knows the FSB. He says its recruits are not “homogenic”.
There is rivalry between Moscow spies and a powerful group from Putin’s home
city of St Petersburg, he says. “Some people are patriotic,” he adds. “They are
still obsessed with Leninist ideas. Others think they are James Bond. And some
of them are thieves, fakers and scumbags. They just want to make money.”
Blokhin, he says, knew nothing about doping when he got the Sochi assignment,
codenamed Operation Resultat. He learned quickly and became a partner in what
Rodchenkov calls “our fraud”.
time the Games ended, Rodchenkov was exhausted. He had outwitted Wada the World
Anti-Doping Agency; Putin gave him the Order of Friendship. In 2015 his
problems began, however. Germany’s ARD TV network accused him of presiding over
a massive doping programme. And Wada recalled the Sochi samples, prompting
Rodchenkov’s lab to dump positive bottles in a landfill site 30km outside
realised his situation was now extremely dangerous. In November 2015, he took
the fateful decision to escape Russia. He packed a carry-on containing his
computer hard drive: evidence of the Kremlin’s crimes. He flew to LA and stayed
with the filmmaker Bryan Fogel, whose documentary on the affair, Icarus, would
win an Oscar. A month after reaching the US, Rodchenkov confessed all on camera
– the lies, the cover-up, the state’s omnipotent role.
five years later, Rodchenkov says he made the right choice. He says he misses
his family terribly – his wife, Veronika, and children Vasily and Marina – who
stayed behind in Moscow with their dog. They have been holed up in a dacha
outside the capital, trying to dodge coronavirus. “They’re clever people. They
understand it’s much better for me not to be in a grave next to Nikita.” Nikita
is Nikita Kamaev, Rodchenkov’s deputy. Kamaev was found dead in mysterious
circumstances soon after Rodchenkov fled to California. Another colleague and
sports executive, Vyacheslav Sinyev, died the same month. Rodchenkov believes
both were murdered. “Nikita had been writing a book. I told him to stop it,” he
says. The FSB terminated Kamaev with an “invisible inoculation”, he thinks.
says writing his tell-all book was easy. As a teenager in the Soviet Union, he
penned 44 volumes of diaries. He wrote the first chunk of The Rodchenkov Affair
immediately after arriving in America. After blowing the whistle on Kremlin
doping, Rodchenkov went into hiding, moving locations on multiple occasions. He
wrote so much he had to “cook, stew and mix” the manuscript, he says jokingly –
using the vocabulary of doping.
scatters his memoir with quotations from George Orwell, who – he says –
understood the deceitful nature of Moscow power. “Cheating, lying and denying
are fundamental to political life in Russia,” Rodchenkov observes. He is a fan
of Fielding, Dickens and Thackeray as well as Walter Scott and Iris Murdoch. He
enjoys the Russian greats too – Lermontov, Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy and
Dostoevsky, plus the poets Joseph Brodsky and Daniil Kharms.
of course, denies any wrongdoing. He says Russia is the victim of a
hypocritical western plot, led by Washington and London. Few outside Russia are
convinced. Rodchenkov’s revelations led directly to Russia’s Olympic Committee
being suspended from world sport; the International Olympic Committee (IOC)
rowed back on this and allowed some Russian athletes to compete in the 2016 Rio
and 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics.
is currently appealing a four-year ban from major international sporting
events. It’s unclear if its team will take part in next summer’s postponed
Toyko Olympics or in the Winter Games in Beijing in 2022. There are few signs
that the Kremlin is prepared to acknowledge wrongdoing; instead, Rodchenkov
says, Russia last year deleted its entire database of doping test results,
giving WADA a faked version with adverse entries stripped out.
Russian state media depicts Rodchenkov as a fraud and a fabulist, who has sold
out his motherland for 30 pieces of silver. Rodchenkov sees himself as a
late-developing whistleblower. It may have taken a while before his conscience
kicked in, but he eventually came out on the side of justice and transparency –
enlightening the world about wrongdoing on a galactic scale by a pathologically
concludes his book by writing: “I am happy, finally, to be on the side of
truth.” This is an admirable sentiment, but Rodchenkov is well aware of the price
his moral stance entails. The Kremlin, he says, will kill him if it can: “It’s
a fact of life. I was scared for two or three days only.” “I know it will never
stop,” he says, “even when Putin dies.”
Harding is the author of Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem and Russia’s Remaking of
the West, available from the Guardian Bookshop