Doping and anti-doping

Doping has always been a step ahead of detection. “We were like field marshals always condemned to fight the previous war,” writes Grigory Rodchenkov in his book The Rodchenkov Affair.

Employees work in Russia’s national drug-testing laboratory in Moscow. Reading Grigory Rodchenkov’s book The Rodchenkov Affair — written while under the Witness Protection Programme in the US — has the fascination of watching a cheetah catching its prey or a cobra preparing to strike. You know these things happen, and you are not sure you want to keep watching, but you can’t avert your eyes.   -  AP

In Icarus, the Oscar-winning documentary about Russia’s state-sponsored doping programme, Grigory Rodchenkov says, “I was doing in parallel two things which cancelled out each other. Doping and anti-doping. It was pure doublethink.” As Director of the Moscow Anti-Doping Centre, Rodchenkov also oversaw the most elaborate doping scheme in history.

Reading his book The Rodchenkov Affair — written while under the Witness Protection Programme in the US — has the fascination of watching a cheetah catching its prey or a cobra preparing to strike. You know these things happen, and you are not sure you want to keep watching, but you can’t avert your eyes.

“For over ten years, and five Olympics, not one athlete under my guidance tested positive,” writes Rodchenkov proudly. Not that Russian athletes didn’t take drugs. It meant they weren’t caught. Corrupt officials substituted urine samples in tamper-proof bottles, monitored drug use so nothing showed up, forged signatures on tests, drilled a mousehole into a wall to move samples. Rodchenkov also names names.

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Of shot putt star Irina Korzanenko who won gold in Athens but tested positive, he writes: “She should have been discreetly urinating into a towel inside her running shorts and drinking gallons of water to dilute any doping metabolites that were still in her body,” instead of celebrating with fans.

On discus thrower Darya Pishchhalnikova: “her body was a steroid-soaked sponge.”

The book begins with the 22-year-old Rodchenkov, an elite middle distance runner being given a steroid jab by his mother. The everydayness of that scene sets up what follows. Rodchenkov, who believes that drugs are less dangerous than overtraining, majored in chemistry. His first job was at the Scientific and Research Institute for Physical Culture whose primary function was to instruct national teams how not to get caught.

Doping has always been a step ahead of detection. “We were like field marshals always condemned to fight the previous war,” writes Rodchenkov.

By 2013, everything was in place. “We knew that we had a nearly undetectable steroid delivery system in the ‘cocktail’, as well as backup protection if we needed it: we could remove and swap tainted urine from an athlete’s A and B bottles.” Rodchenko felt that “to catch our cheating would take someone as deeply steeped in it as we were.”

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Rodchenkov planned well both the doping scheme and his own career. He began as a supplier, became the head of anti-doping, won renown for his drug manipulation at the winter Olympics in Sochi and was given a national award. When things began to fall apart, he destroyed his computer, left his family in Russia, carried crucial information on hard disks and spilt it all to The New York Times. Whether motivated by selfishness or hopes of redemption it didn’t matter for sport.

Rodchenkov doesn’t spare anyone. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), for its lackadaisical approach and convenient belief that everything was clean, egos of politicians and other national associations, Russia’s former KGB (now FSB), and especially Vladimir Putin and his “medals over morals” policy.