Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony – Photo by Oliver Catlin
We welcomed reading the Sept. 22 New York Times opinion piece from Grigory Rodchenkov on Russia’s state-sanctioned doping and the response to date by the Olympic community. Vladmir Putin has now added his voice to the discussion.
Grigory’s comments clarifying the direct involvement of the Russian sport minister in the country’s nefarious doping activities are very important, as that has been difficult to prove. Grigory also shares what our position has been for some time, that as a result of its state-directed doping Russia should be sanctioned and not allowed to compete as a nation in the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang but demonstrably clean Russian athletes should be allowed to compete under a neutral flag.
While we appreciate much of the perspectives Grigory shares, and also his apology to those he disappointed since we fall into that group, we still have some questions regarding his explanation and reasoning. The biggest question remains: Why did he participate in Russia’s fraudulent state-directed doping for so long without trying to expose it earlier on ethical grounds, and exactly how long was the activity going on?
Grigory begins his piece saying he escaped Russia to expose to the world the Russian doping activities in hopes of leading to change. He laments that his hope for change is fading due to a lax response. He notes that Russia has yet to admit to supporting the doping activities or provide evidence to demonstrate the specifics of what occurred, part of the recommended reforms the Olympic authorities have requested. He points out the oddity that none of the commissions investigating the case had sought comment from him until September. This is certainly unfortunate if true.
He then goes on to unequivocally explain that Vitaly Mutko, a deputy prime minister and former minister of sport, and other government officials were directly involved in the doping activities, saying Mr. Mutko “knew about, and was critical to the success of, Russia’s doping program.” The involvement of the state and the ability to demonstrate it has been debated by some to date and has made it easier to support a less stringent response for those so inclined. Grigory, as a key witness, adds important clarity as to the direct involvement of government authorities in the Russian doping agenda.
Grigory goes on to describe himself as the witch in the witch-hunt, and we agree with that notion in part as he was most likely not the mastermind behind this affair. Yet we are not ready to accept his absolution of guilt. After all, from an ethical standpoint there are still many questions remaining as to why Grigory did not come forward earlier to expose the truth behind the Russian doping activities and halt his own involvement in them. There are also big questions as to how long the state-sponsored doping has been ongoing that are of significant concern.
Grigory describes himself as a victim of the system suggesting that he did not have a choice but to be involved in the doping activities. He compares this to the clean athletes that also do not “have much choice but to cheat, even if some did so enthusiastically.” He suggests that the Russian system demands compliance and that people face serious consequences if they do not comply with directions from superiors or the state. He recounts the sudden, mysterious deaths of two of his colleagues that were involved in Russia’s doping system, saying that they were not coincidental.
We do not doubt, nor discount, the need to comply with the demands of the state in Russia or face dire consequences. We understand that careers, and in fact lives in certain circumstances, are at stake for non-compliance.
For Grigory, or for Russian athletes, a sad choice is suggested: Follow the directions of the state, sacrificing your ethics in the process, if you want to be successful in your career. The other option seems to be to leave the country to pursue your trade, whether it be science or athletics. Leaving ones country and life behind is perhaps a more difficult choice to make than sacrificing ones ethics, but that is a choice that some people in similar circumstances have made. What a horrible decision to have to make.
We noted recently in our commentary on the documentary “Icarus” that there are allegations of state-sponsored doping in the Soviet Union and Russia going back to 1988 and before, when Victor Uralets was the laboratory director from 1980 to 1992. Elliott Almond reminded us of this on May 13, 2016 in The Monterey Herald in his interview with Victor the week following the revelations of Russian doping in The New York Times. Grigory was hired by Victor and eventually succeeded him as director of the Moscow anti-doping laboratory.
A Russian magazine Smena had revealed allegations of 1988 pre-testing occurring on the ship ‘Mikhail Sholokhov,’ docked 60 kilometers from Seoul in an effort to explore whether Russian athletes would pass drug tests during the Olympics. As Elliott writes, this was “one of the most startling revelations that attracted little attention… after the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.” An L.A. Times piece from March 24, 1989 describes the Smena article and recounts a startling story told by the young anonymous Soviet athlete interviewed by the youth magazine.
“They knew what kind of ‘vitamins’ these were,” said the athlete, who asked not to be identified. “And that if you refused, you’d be thrown off the team. . . . Now I’m practically an invalid . . . constant pains . . . my whole hormonal system is destroyed, my health is ruined . . . and my life is still ahead of me. I would have liked to become a mother.” For those who question why we should fight against doping, this one personal story should provide a powerful answer.
Victor verifies the veracity of the pre-testing claims and the apparent purpose, in Elliott’s article and also importantly noted that he left his position and came to the United States because he did not believe what he was being asked to do was ethical or safe. “By the time I realized it is not ethical or safe, I decided to leave,” Victor is quoted as saying. “I have a similar job here but without that embarrassment involved with cheating.” He goes on to say, “It is repeating itself. It is a huge embarrassment. It is an embarrassment on a global scale.”
Is it repeating itself or did it never end?
As we pointed out in our earlier discussion on “Icarus,” Don, and others had concerns that doping activity was occurring going back to the Soviet era. Manfred Donike, one of the greatest anti-doping scientists in history, had become suspicious in 1988 of Soviet pre-testing during the Olympics in Calgary where on the street he ran into Victor, who was there unbeknownst to his international doping control lab colleagues. Later, Don and other colleagues became aware of the Smena allegations of pre-testing of Soviet athletes; Don even recalls a photo of Grigory coming off the boat.
While there was suspicion that these activities could be part of a larger Soviet doping strategy there was never anything actionable to address. There had been no proof presented that we can recall that could clearly demonstrate state-sanctioned doping was occurring in the 1980s, or in the years since. As Grigory points out, that proof has yet to be provided by Russia even for the most recent endeavors.
But Grigory, we must ask, why did you not opt to do the same thing that Victor did? Why did you not come out earlier to expose the scandal for the benefit of clean athletes? Why did you wait until your life was threatened? You could have come to us at any point and we would have done everything possible to help you expose whatever was occurring in the right way–and do what was possible to protect your family in the process. You chose not to take that path, and that is unfortunate. Now you want to wash your hands of any responsibility?
The New York Times article of May 12, 2016, “Russian Insider Says State-Run Doping Fueled Olympic Gold” by Rebecca Ruiz, described your activities as “the apex of a decade-long effort to perfect Russia’s doping strategy at international competitions.” You have admitted to not only allowing your testing to be used as a tool in the state-directed doping activities, but to actually providing the drugs involved! We would really like to know the extent of what was going on back to the 1980s and how you were involved since then.
For us to consider that you were complicit somehow in Soviet and Russian doping from the 1980s through recent years makes our spine tingle. We were your friends, your colleagues. We even worked on collaborative anti-doping efforts with you including a groundbreaking U.S. – Soviet partnership in 1988 described in the New York Times at the time as “the first major attempt by each country to eliminate the use of performance-enhancing drugs like anabolic steroids.” All that seems like a fraud now, sadly.
In “Icarus,” Grigory briefly alludes to challenges we have faced in the United States with doping athletes. In the 1980s the USOC’s now infamous “education” program was used to explore how to dope athletes and beat the drug tests. When Don uncovered the reality behind the program, for which he was doing the testing, he immediately stopped the work and demanded change.
His career was potentially on the line, but thankfully his life was never threatened. We understand the ethical dilemma Grigory faced, but we can’t profess to truly understand the circumstantial dilemma that the threat of the state adds to the equation.
Courageous whistleblower athletes Yuliya Stepanova and her husband, Vitaliy, did understand the risk and nonetheless elected to come forward. They are to be lauded for helping to expose the sordid Russian doping affair. As we noted in our earlier statement on “Icarus,” the athletes courageously stepped forward to demand change themselves and took action. Their strength is a powerful force in confronting state corruption and impelling the system to change.
We share the opinion that the Olympic family must adequately respond to this demand for change and that it has yet to do so. Prohibiting Russia from achieving glory at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang as a penalty for its involvement in the establishment of a doping program seems justified. We advocated for that step to be taken before Rio. Fines are not adequate and set a dangerous precedent. Allowing Russian athletes that are proven clean to compete under a neutral flag reinforces support of clean athletes while a Russian ban would enforce a deservedly harsh penalty on the state.
We remain hopeful the exposure of the Russian doping scandal will result in positive changes that will reinforce the protection that clean athletes deserve. Grigory could help further by explaining what was happening before Sochi and the mouse holes were drilled and the bottles tampered with and the positive test results covered up and the clean athletes denied their victories. He could help shed some light on the historical realities of the Soviet and Russian doping program going back to the 1980s and 1990s. This information might help us to avoid state-sponsored doping in the future, by Russia or some other country willing to ride roughshod over the integrity of Olympic sport.
Russia is now requesting that Grigory be returned home to face trial for his actions. If he is sent back he will surely be imprisoned, or worse, and his knowledge of what really happened will be lost. What he knows is important to the future of clean sport and he should be given the opportunity to finish telling his story.
On Nov. 9, Russian President Vladimir Putin commented on the Russian doping allegations, suggesting among other things that the doping scandal is a U.S. plot aimed at swinging the upcoming Russian presidential election against him. He is quoted in part as follows:
“Here is what worries me: the Olympics start in February, and when are our presidential elections? In March. There is a strong suspicion that this is all happening in order to create a situation useful to some, one of disappointment for sports followers and sportsmen in which the state allegedly participated in violations. Therefore, there is strong suspicion that in response to our alleged interference in their election they want to create problems in the election of the President of Russia, which, if so, is very bad, as it undermines the very meaning of the Olympic movement.”
President Putin, the eyes of the world have already been opened to the reality that there was high-level support for the doping that occurred in your country. Independent international parties under the auspices of the World Anti-Doping Agency carried out the process of investigating and reporting the reality of the abuses that occurred. The exposed Russian doping scandal is not a U.S. plot and the good people of the Lausanne laboratory were not part of the subterfuge. It is clear this was a systemic scheme perpetuated on sport by Russia to subvert Olympic competition. The worldwide reaction to this affront represents a global fight for the integrity of Olympic sport, led in part by Russia’s own athletes.
Indeed, part of the beauty of Olympic sport is that it transcends politics, which is all the more reason to protect it. In your own words, “sport as well as culture should be beyond politics, because it is a bridge that unites people”–yet you seek to politicize it. Doping degrades and destroys sport, it ruins the lives of talented athletes, and it undermines the unity and goodwill that international sport generates. As you point out, “a sports match should be honest, otherwise it loses all meaning. Interest in it disappears.”
President Putin, we appreciate your passion for sport and your aim to ensure Russia remains a global leader in sport. We hope you realize that in order to accomplish that goal a true embrace of the Olympic ideals and a real commitment to support clean sport are required.