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Russian insider says state-run doping fueled Sochi Olympics

EPA

Team Russia is pictured during the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games. The International Olympic Committee has called for immediate investigations on allegations of Russian state-sponsored doping at the games.

By Rebecca Ruiz and Michael Schwirtz The New York Times  

LOS ANGELES — 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 anti-doping 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.

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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 anti-doping experts and members of the intelligence services 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, 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, 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.

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

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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.”

The Sports Ministry subsequently released a statement saying that it had never denied having doping problems. “We acknowledge that changes are needed,” it read. “The allegations made by the former director of laboratories came as a major shock to us. Considering that he was fired from his position for manipulating tests, it is very likely that he has other motives.”

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 Rodchenkov.

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.

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.

“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, Rodchenkov was awarded the prestigious Order of Friendship by President Vladimir Putin. Six months ago, however, he had a dramatic change in fortune.

In November, the World Anti-Doping Agency identified 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, Rodchenkov said, Russian officials forced him to resign. Fearing for his safety, he moved to Los Angeles, with the help of Fogel.

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

The November report was primarily focused on track and field, but 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.

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, Rodchenkov said, and outlined the competition schedule for each athlete. If any of them won a medal, their urine samples had to be substituted.

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.

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

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, Mutko, the minister, organized a news conference with journalists from the state-run news agency TASS, calling the Times 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,” Mutko told TASS. “Everything was under the control of international experts — from the collection of samples to their analysis.”

Rodchenkov said the sports ministry actively guided the doping effort. In the six months before the games, he said, he met with 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, 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. Putin himself had negotiated Russia’s Olympic bid and was personally involved in much of the planning.

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 anti-doping laboratory in Moscow since 2005, and was widely considered among the world’s top experts in performance-enhancing drugs. By his own admission, Rodchenkov, who has a doctorate 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.

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

In the interviews, 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.

The International Olympic Committee called 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.