Edward Snowden and Dr Grigory Rodchenkov are whistle-blowers whose revelations were so explosive that they have become political refugees from their homeland, the USA and Russia respectively. Snowden was the internet tech wiz, working for the CIA and NSA (National Security Agency), who became increasingly alarmed at the degree of invasion of citizen privacy he was seeing (and not simply in the USA), and briefed international news’ organisations, including the Washington Post and Guardian. An imminent indictment of treason forced him to go on the run.
Rodchenkov was the head of the Moscow sports drug-testing laboratory, answerable to RUSADA, the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, an organisation supposedly devoted to busting Russian drug cheats, but an operation that did exactly the opposite. The pinnacle of Rodchenkov’s career came in helping to orchestrate the wholesale falsification of Russian dope tests at the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi 2014, nominally a huge success for the host nation and its (effective) President for life, Vladimir Putin. But suspicions began to accumulate about the extent of Russian success in Sochi, and discrepancies in Rodchenkov’s lab paperwork to WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency), coupled with the volatile nature of Russian bureaucratic in-fighting and his own mounting paranoia decided Rodchenkov that he should do the same as Snowden, and do a bunk.
Both men fled retribution in their home country and sought refuge in the other’s. This is no coincidence. Since the Russian Revolution over 100 years ago, Russia and later with its satellite countries that would make up the Soviet bloc was on a political, philosophical and economic collision course with the world’s hegemon, the USA. This rivalry became known as the Cold War and manifested itself primarily in the nuclear Arms’ Race. Since the latter could only result in a scenario known as MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction, a lot of the rivalry devolved to the sports field, which is pretty much how the warring cities in Ancient Greece came up with the Olympic Games. To paraphrase a later military strategist, Carl von Clausewitz, it was war by other means.
From the moment the Soviet Union entered the Olympic arena in Helsinki 1952 (they turned down the offer to compete in London 1948). The Olympic Games became the surrogate Cold War; and with the discovery two years later by US coach John Ziegler of Soviet weight-lifters using testosterone in international competition, the Arms’ Race was mirrored in the rush to synthesize testosterone into anabolic steroids, which ultimately led to the rest of the panoply of performance enhancing drugs, and the situation we find ourselves in now with regard to track & field athletics, the most international of sports, and its reliance on performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) – it’s out of control!
Now, here’s the big difference between Snowden and Rodchenkov. Despite the fact that that paragon of rectitude, Barrack Obama was, in the words of the Springsteen song, ready to bang Snowden up for 99 years and a day, Snowden seems to think that Obama’s VP, the soon to be 46th Prez of the USA, Joe Biden might grant him clemency; Rodchenkov, on the other hand is pretty sure that Vladimir Putin wants him dead, and has probably already got his state poisoners on the case. Rodchenkov mentions the strong likelihood of such an endgame several times in his award-winning book The Rodchenkov Affair, but it won’t have helped his cause to have subtitled it, How I Brought Down Putin’s Secret Doping Empire. Evidence of the precariousness of Rodchenkov’s situation is that he is in the US witness protection programme, living anonymously and pseudonymously in a safe house somewhere in the USA.
If you’ve watched the Oscar-winning documentary Icarus, you’ll be familiar with Rodchenkov. Though Bryan Fogel, the film’s director and a national class cyclist intended the film to be an exposition of how Lance Armstrong cheated the dope testing system for so long, happenstance threw Fogel in the path of Rodchenkov. It wasn’t long before the Muscovite’s perverse pride in his nefarious achievements led him to spill the beans to Fogel – and what a hill it turned out to be! At the end of Icarus, released over two years ago, he tells Fogel that he’s going to spend his seclusion writing a book. And here it is.
Born into the nomenklatura, the Soviet hierarchy, Rodchenkov was a chemistry student and national class middle-distance runner, with bests of 3.44.5, 8.02.42 and 13.52.57, for 1500, 3000 and 5000 metres. But he achieved those very respectable times with the help of steroid injections, from his mother no less, who was a medic at what Rodchenkov describes as the ‘Kremlin Hospital’. That is only the first in a string of extraordinary revelations. When he first joins the Moscow drug-testing lab in his mid-twenties, he quickly realises that, having been permitted to travel throughout the eastern bloc as an athlete and encountering better drugs in, for example, East Germany (which he bought then sold on the black market), he knew more than the scientists already working there. He also reports that he was amazed to discover that the most popular PEDs, stromba (stanozolol) and turik (oral turinabol) were undetectable at that time.
In one of many telling sentences, he describes the Moscow lab’s, ‘primary function was not to catch athletes who were using banned drugs, but to instruct national teams how not to get caught’. He claims that Ben Johnson failed a dope test at the Goodwill Games in Moscow 1986. He knows, he says because he did the testing himself. He reported it but it was never disclosed. He also maintains that he saw Johnson’s sample in Seoul, and it wasn’t obvious that it was positive; the implication being that someone was determined to make an example. Rodchenkov’s conclusion after reading the 657 page Dubin Inquiry on the BenJo scandal is simple, revelatory and damning – ‘there was no way to win without doping’.
After a ten-year hiatus when he worked in industry, Rodchenkov returns to the Moscow lab in the early 2000s as deputy, soon to take over as head. And so began his principal work, which would last for a decade, outwitting WADA, falsifying samples, and developing his own PED ‘potion’ called Duchess, three low-grade steroids mixed with alcohol, which somehow can escape detection, since it is used as a mouthwash, and ingested sub-lingually, ie under the tongue, thus directly into the bloodstream without metabolising in the gut. He credits Victor Conte of BALCO infamy for teaching him this trick. All this work culminates in his greatest ‘triumph,’ falsifying dozens of dirty samples at the Sochi Winter Games. As he boasts, ‘I helped run the most successful doping enterprises in world history’; ‘Dirty urine samples soaked with PEDs emerged clean from my laboratory for over ten years and five Olympics’; ‘I am one of the reasons my country won so many Olympic medals from 2004-2014’.
Rodchenkov is clearly an alpha personality, but with a degree of instability – under financial and political pressure, he tried to commit suicide two decades ago. There is a strong element of self-aggrandisement is this account, vaunting his own importance in the politicking necessary to stay afloat or even alive in Putin’s Russia (two close colleagues die in mysterious circumstances, which he claims is a ‘message’ to him). But when he gets down to the nuts and bolts of how dope-testing was ‘bent’ at Sochi 2014, it is not only riveting reading, it is more than likely a relatively accurate account of what actually happened. The FSB, successors to the KGB, the secret police discovered a way to crack open the supposedly fool-proof urine sample bottles and re-seal them (with clean urine) without being detected. No one who has been hacked by Fancy Bear or any other data-stealing enterprise will be surprised at this level of invention in Russia. It’s almost admirable in its ingenuity. You’d want these guys on your team in a cyber-war for sure.
If Rodchenkov gives us an insight into state-sponsored doping, then Matt Hart’s Win At All Costs is an account of the free enterprise version, or as his subtitle says, Inside Nike Running and its Culture of Deception. It’s an account of the Nike Oregon Project, conceived and administered by 1980s long distance running ‘great’ Alberto Salazar, and funded by the apparently fathomless pockets of the sports shoe/apparel behemoth. The objective of the project was to raise the standard of US distance running to that of the East Africans, and it seems that Salazar stopped at little or nothing to achieve that; but it does beg one significant question, how come the leading light in the enterprise turned out to be a Brit, Mo Farah?
No one who saw Salazar run himself to a standstill (and the emergency room) in the Boston Marathon in 1982, and even earlier in a heat-wave at the 1978 Falmouth Road Race where he was so close to death that he had the last rites administered will doubt that he is an obsessive personality. According to many rivals and colleagues, going back to Craig Virgin who reckoned Salazar was on steroids from 1982, he would do anything to achieve his goals.
As leading coach on the NOP, lionised incidentally by Seb Coe and legions of BBCTV commentators, Salazar has a ‘tame’ doctor, Jeffrey Brown, who diagnoses any athletes sent to him as asthmatic, so they can get a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) to take what would otherwise be a banned drug. What Dr Brown doesn’t know is that they’ve been instructed to do a lung-busting track session immediately prior to going to surgery. As one who has done these in his time, believe me, your chest seems as if it’s about to explode; ie anyone would seem and sound asthmatic.
Hart’s principal sources, and full credit to them for eventually going to the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), were Kara and Adam Goucher, who spent years inside NOP, getting increasingly suspicious about Salazar’s methods and attitudes, which might be described as ‘marginal gains’ a methodology made infamous by Dave Brailsford and Sky Team cycling who turned out not be as squeaky clean as they pretended.
The other principal source is Steve Magness, a former 4.01 miler who turned to coaching and was invited by Salazar to join the project in 2011. Magness is one of many additions to NOP, all of whom seem to be told on arrival by Salazar, don’t believe all that drugs bullshit you hear about me. As if that isn’t an invitation to be suspicious? And Magness very quickly is. He later testifies that Salazar would do or try anything, like giving his own daughter’s anti-inflammatory medication to Alan Webb, buying, excuse me, ‘dick’ pills for his sons from gas stations to see if they increase testosterone levels, and sending Magness off on a whim to buy medication from miles away. Salazar has already admitted that he took testosterone himself from 1991 to 2006, and that he tried testosterone cream on both of his sons, to gauge ‘bleed-out’ times. As Hart writes, ‘to Magness it seemed crazy, haphazard and frankly illegal’.
But Magness gets drawn into the conspiracy, to the extent that he agrees, at Salazar’s behest to be a guinea-pig for an infusion of what the book claims is a new substance L-Carnitine (but which has been around to my knowledge for decades); the infusion turns out to be twenty times the volume permitted by WADA. Six days later, Magness, now in his late twenties and still running regularly but nowhere near international level, is asked to pace Farah and marathon star Dathan Ritzenhein on a training stint. Magness not only keeps up with the pair for close to 20 kilometres, he runs a personal best for ten miles! Salazar is overjoyed, and all his charges, including Farah and Galen Rupp (second to Farah over 10,000m at London 2012) are infused with L-Carnitine.
There is a farcical follow-up to this experiment with regards to Farah. When BBCTV and the US journalistic combine Propublica publish allegations about Salazar’s programme five years ago, UK Athletics is forced into action and grills Farah who repeatedly denies having such an infusion. Leaving the interview room, Farah encounters UKA official Barry Fudge who tells him that he did have the infusion. Farah has to rush back to his interrogators and tell them he ‘forgot’. It may have been a similar memory lapse that caused him to ‘forget’ to answer the doorbell when drug-testers came to his house prior to the 2012 Olympic Games?
Laced throughout the book is the attention Salazar pays to his favourite ‘son’ Galen Rupp who, it seems has been taking a pharmacopeia of medication at Salazar’s behest from his schoolboy days. When, in response to the BBCTV and Propublica allegations, the Nike website publishes an 11,000 word rebuttal by Salazar in which he details Rupp’s medication, Hart responds with one of the best lines in the book. ‘The astute reader is left wondering how Rupp could possibly compete against the best athletes in the world with all that afflicts him?’
There is lots more where that came from, but I have several gripes with this book. In addition to being larded with superfluous detail, thus too long, like many written by non-experts in T&F, it manages to mangle facts. Hart makes it sound as if Lasse Virén has won both the 5000 and 10,000 metres golds in Montreal just the day before running the marathon (where he finished fifth). When talking about a young colleague who admits to Steve Prefontaine and Frank Shorter that he has taken steroids to help win a national championship in 1973, Hart seems unaware that that is the very year that Harold Connolly gave historic testimony to a US senate committee on the extent of drug-taking among US athletes. Worst of all, halfway through the book, Hart starts referring to Salazar as Cuban. It’s a ridiculous and insulting distinction. Salazar has lived over five decades of his 62 years in the USA. It’s like calling Linford Christie and Ben Johnson Jamaican, or Mo Farah Somali. Of course, there are right-wingers and racists (not necessarily the same) who might make the same tabloid distinction, pretending that the subject is not, in this case, American, or is even worse, Un-American!
As should be clear to anyone who follows (or used to follow) track and field athletics that US athletes (cf Justin Gatlin, Marion Jones, Christian Coleman, et al) are just as culpable as Russian athletes. This is one cold war that no one is winning. Except for the time being, the Russians aren’t even on the battle… er, playing field. As a result of Rodchenkov’s revelations and the fact that they seem reluctant to mend their ways, Russia is banned from the next summer and winter Games, and the next football World Cup. The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has however recently reduced the original ban of four years to two. But World Athletics is standing firm, and insisting that only Russian athletes who follow doping protocols with regular testing can compete internationally as individuals. That may change at the next World Athletics meeting on the subject in March.
USADA disclosures mean that Salazar and Dr Brown have been banned from involvement in athletics for four years, and you may wonder how the multi-medal winning Farah and Rupp have escaped censure. Nike has closed down the Oregon Project and, as happened with the Armstrong and Tiger Woods’ scandals, Salazar’s name has been removed from the pavilion named after him. But as ever with Nike the company managed to avert attention from the bad news and a parallel legal suit for misogynistic practices with the furore over the Vaporfly shoes; but as my colleague, Ross Tucker has admirably outlined on the Science of Sport website, World Athletics failed to protect the integrity of the sport by not setting their own parameters for the new shoes, and cravenly accepting Nike’s de facto product. Given that the next athletics World Championship is going to Niketown, which is to say, Eugene, Oregon, which was awarded the championship without any bidding; and that half a dozen years ago, USAT&F signed a multi-year contract with Nike, worth up to $500 million, many of my colleagues across the pond have taken to saying ‘Nike owns USAT&F’. It might be equally appropriate to ask, does Nike own World Athletics too?