Accessibility links

Breaking News

In Russian Doping Report, A Cloak-And-Dagger World Of Testing And Evasion

Russia's Maria Savinova (L) and Yekaterina Poistogova celebrating after the women's 800-meter final at the London 2012 Olympics.
Russia's Maria Savinova (L) and Yekaterina Poistogova celebrating after the women's 800-meter final at the London 2012 Olympics.

It wouldn’t be out of place in a James Bond movie.

But instead of coded messages, surveillance bugs, and money wire transfers, there are urine samples, security agent surveillance, and surreptitious text messages.

The 335-page report released November 9 by investigators from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is a powerful indictment of the Russian Athletics Federation: its athletes, coaches, trainers, facilities, and the government officials who oversee them.

As Dick Pound, the lead investigator and former WADA chief, put it in characteristically blunt remarks to reporters: “It’s worse than we thought.”

Packed with a litany of acronyms -- WADA, IAAF, ARAF, IDTM, DOC, ABP, PED -- the report is at times dry, plodding, and mind-numbing, with a heavy emphasis on detail and evidence bolstering the seriousness of its conclusions: Russia’s doping was systemic and state-sponsored, and its athletics federation should be banned from competitions.

But it also features compelling sections describing the cloak-and-dagger details of how the system allegedly worked: how athletes cheated, how managers helped them cheat, how officials tried to circumvent a complex system aimed at ensuring that athletes compete on the same playing field, without the benefit of performance enhancing drugs.

Much of the evidence in the report, and in the TV documentary by German broadcaster ARD, is built on material gathered from secret video and audio recordings, much of which was gathered by whistleblowers.

“Mariya Savinova, the reigning Russian Olympic 800-meter gold medalist at the 2012 London Olympics, admitted, in secret video recordings, to using the banned steroid oxandrolone, referred to as ‘ox,’” the report states.

It alleges that athletes and their coaches would go to great lengths to hide from inspectors. At training camps in Portugal, for example, athletes would register using false names to avoid out-of-competition testing, according to the report.

Threats Of Violence

Underscoring the seriousness with which top officials viewed the entire endeavor, there were also thinly veiled threats of violence. One athlete was quoted in the report as saying that complaining about doping practices within the Russian national athletics team was serious business: “As the athlete said, ‘leave it, otherwise you might accidently get in a car accident.’”

On the frontline of the system to test and monitor athletes were the inspectors -- known as Doping Control Officers, or DCOs. They were the ones who traveled to far-flung training camps, making sure the athletes, when required, gave proper urine samples and made sure the samples made it to testing laboratories without tampering.

The DCOs, the report detailed, would show up at hotels where athletes were staying while training, and the hotel receptionist would provide a full list of the guests. The coaches or managers, meanwhile, would dodge, weave, and feint, professing no knowledge of athletes’ whereabouts. When the DCOs sought to call athletes on their cell phones to summon them for testing, their phones would be answered by the coaches. One section details how Russian athletes failed to show up on time for a test purportedly because their English wasn’t very good, and they couldn’t understand the time when they were instructed to appear.

Another section features a vignette that Bond author Ian Fleming might be proud of. A DCO described for investigators how he traveled to a training camp in Saransk, east of Moscow. Local police were constantly monitoring the DCO, according to the report, to ensure the samples he gathered went to the Moscow laboratory that, the report later said, actively and routinely tampered with the samples.

The DCO went on to describe the steps he took to avoid police.

“When I left the hotel by the window during the night in order to take another train (I left the light and the TV working in a room, so they could imagine I'm inside), and the police were waiting at the station in Moscow, I had to do my best to avoid them and to deliver the samples to another person, who after this was no more able to do the transfer of the samples,” the DCO is quoted as saying.

He adds: “As the samples never arrived to the Moscow lab and were analyzed in Lausanne, there were four positive tests, and the person who transferred all samples was no more able to do this (the last samples I took to Paris in my luggage), my mother received threatening calls.”

WADA investigators went on to note that this DCO “believed in order to ensure the safe collection and transportation of unaltered athlete testing samples from Russia to outside testing facilities, the DCO must be prepared to evade (athletics federation) monitors who the DCO believes were aided by Russian law enforcement officers.”

FSB Involvement?

And as if routine police monitoring wasn’t bad enough, investigators also documented the purported involvement of undercover agents from Russia’s lead security agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), in monitoring the accredited Moscow laboratory where athletes’ samples were taken to be tested.

One lab worker was quoted in the report as saying that FSB agents bugged or wiretapped phones to monitor the lab activities.

“[L]ast time in Sochi, we had some guys pretending to be engineers in the lab but actually they were from the Federal Security Service, let’s call it the new KGB; FSB,” the lab worker said.

The alleged involvement of the FSB -- a powerful security agency with wide reach and clout -- buttresses what may be the report’s most damning assertion: that the Russian government at best condoned athletes doping, and at worst, sanctioned it, organized it, and helped protect it.

“While written evidence of government involvement has not been produced, it would be naïve in the extreme to conclude that activities on the scale discovered could have occurred without the explicit or tacit approval of Russian governmental authorities,” the report said.

  • 16x9 Image

    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.