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How Russia Is Trying to Charm Its Way Out of an Olympic Doping Ban

13 minute read

Up on the fourth floor of Moscow’s anti-doping laboratory, the director’s office is deserted, a large desk standing empty in a corner of the room. Its former occupant, Grigory Rodchenkov, left his post in November and fled to the United States following allegations from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) that he had been the kingpin of a state-run scheme of pervasive doping and corruption in Russian athletics. The next time Russia heard of Rodchenkov, it was as a whistleblower on the pages of the New York Times.

In the explosive story published last month, Rodchenkov described in detail how he substituted Russian athletes’ tainted urine samples for clean ones with the help of an agent from the state intelligence bureau, the FSB, using a hole cut into the wall of the sealed-off room where the samples were stored. For years, Russian athletes sipped on his cocktail of steroids mixed with alcohol — Chivas whiskey for men, Martini vermouth for women — to avoid detection, he claimed.

In Russia, Rodchenkov’s story has been ripped apart and ridiculed. “He must have overheated or eaten something,” the president of Russia’s athletics federation, Dmitry Shlyakhtin, tells TIME during an interview at the Central Army Sports Club stadium in Moscow. “Anyone can come up with fantasies. I can say I jumped into a pool with alligators and came out unscathed. But Chivas Whiskey?!… Why Chivas and not Macallan?” he jeered. “Russians drink Macallan. Why Martini? Women here drink wine. These are the ramblings of a madman!”

Mockery aside, Rodchenkov’s allegations come at a particularly precarious time for Russia. On June 17, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the governing body for track and field sports, is set to rule on whether to reinstate Russian athletes ahead of the Rio Olympics. The odds appear to be stacked against them — this month another 14 Russian athletes were reported to have tested positive for doping at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the samples of a further eight taken during the 2012 London Olympics tested positive as well.

Grigory Rodchenkov, who ran the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games antidoping test laboratory, said he developed a three-drug cocktail of banned substances that he provided to dozens of Russian athletes, in Los Angeles.
Grigory Rodchenkov, who ran the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games antidoping test laboratory, in Los Angeles, May 5, 2016. Rodchenkov said he developed a three-drug cocktail of banned substances that he provided to dozens of Russian athletes.Emily Berl—The New York Times/Redux

With Russia’s reputation in tatters, it has signed up the American PR-agency Burson-Marsteller to help mitigate the damage. The firm declined to comment on its strategy or who had employed it — the Sports Ministry itself or some other federal agency. Instead, it said in written comments to TIME that Burson-Marsteller was “advising on a range of communications and media issues relating to Russia’s participation at the Summer Olympic Games in Rio.”

A former employee of the firm and PR veteran, Gene Grabowski, was more forthcoming. He says Russia’s predicament is typical of the government clients that Burson-Marsteller has helped in the past, including the Argentinian military junta and the Nigerian government, which hired the firm in the wake of reports of genocide in the Biafran war. The tactic is usually that of the three F’s, Grabowski says. “Foul up, ‘fess up, fix up.”

“The goal is to win public support around the world so that Olympic committees can invite the Russians back into the Olympics without uproar from the public,” he says.

Indeed, it wasn’t long after Rodchenkov’s revelations that Russia made a surprise shift to “fess up” mode. In an article published in The Sunday Times of London, Russian Minister of Sport Vitaly Mutko admitted that “serious mistakes” had been made and asked for leniency for Russia’s Olympic athletes. It was an unprecedentedly conciliatory message from a man who previously dismissed WADA’s allegations as politicized slander. Burson-Marsteller also invited a select group of Western publications, TIME among them, on a last-minute tour of athletic facilities and meetings with the elite of the Russian sports and anti-doping world.

It was clearly meant to bolster Mutko’s message of repentance and reform. But among the minister’s lower-ranking peers, the resounding sentiment was not so much apologetic as “let bygones be bygones” and “full steam ahead to Rio!”

“In deep crisis.” That’s how Shlyakhtin, the head of the national athletics federation, describes the current state of Russian track-and-field. Installed earlier this year after his predecessor was given a lifetime ban, Shlyakhtin said Russian athletics had been ground down by “twenty-five years of conservative management.” That, and “a desire to prove to the world that you’re the very best,” he says.

At a meeting in a Moscow cafe, the chief athletics coach Yury Borzakovsky, who is also a recent appointment, responds with irritation to the suggestion that Russia has had a systematic doping problem, even during Soviet times. “In my 20 years as an athlete, I was never offered any pills or doping,” he says. “We were all friends, one team, and not once did I see anyone do anything,” he insists.

Himself an Olympic gold medalist, Borzakovsky stubbornly denies the possibility that any coaches, doctors, or the sports ministry could have played a role in facilitating the doping. He hasn’t read the WADA report — “It’s not part of my job,” he says — but he is convinced it is based on “rumors in the media.” So when Mutko apologized for “serious mistakes made by athletes and coaches,” who would the minister have been referring to? Borzakovsky responds with a blank stare. “I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe he wasn’t talking about track and field.”

The possibility of Borzakovsky’s team not being able to participate in the upcoming Olympics clearly weighs on his mind. “I can’t even talk about it. I can’t even think about it,” he says, a hint of desperation breaking through his constrained manner. Not so long ago he asked Russian President Vladimir Putin a question on live TV in the same tone. With the possibility of a ban hanging over Russian athletes, “How should we prepare for the Olympics?” he asked. Putin’s answer was unsentimental. “You have to be ready for whatever outcome,” said the President.

Today, the coach would rather not talk about whether he was satisfied with that answer. “It’s a painful topic, it’s personal,” he says nervously. “The team is preparing, but it’s unclear for what, so I asked that question,” he says. “I knew the answer but I just thought that Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin], well, he answered as he did. But it’s better not to talk about this.”

Head coach of Russian athletics team Borzakovsky attends Russian Indoor Championships in Moscow
Yury Borzakovsky, head coach of Russian athletics team, attends the Russian Indoor Championships 2016 in Moscow, Feb. 24, 2016.Maxim Shemetov—Reuters

While questions on doping among athletes or Putin are met with suspicion, Borzakovsky never tires of defending his current team’s complete innocence. “We are constantly undergoing doping tests by international staff,” he says. “What more can we do? Maybe put the entire team in a hospital?”

He says that anti-doping seminars and lectures have become a regular and mandatory part of the athletes’ schedules. But why, if doping is not a problem? For a moment, he looks taken aback. When the answer comes, it is couched in disclaimers. “I suspect that in some cases some athletes will be advised by certain external people, outside official structures. Someone could slip you something. So you have to teach athletes to say no,” he says.

Pole vaulter Anzhelika Sidorova does not need to be taught how to say No, she says — she already knows. Speaking to TIME at the Central Army training grounds in Moscow, she says: “I’ve been in sport from early childhood, so you can say I’ve been preparing for the Olympics for a long time. Of course those who are caught doping should be punished, she adds. But she is now “being thrown on a heap with these allegations.”

Sidorova says she has not witnessed any doping herself. “Just as everyone else, I follow the news and see people being disqualified. I train and answer only to myself, you can put it that way.” Worried that the point has been insufficiently made, a press attaché — who until now has spent the entire interview quietly listening in on the conversation from a corner in the room — jumps in.

“Do you think someone would just walk up to Anzhelika and say: ‘I use doping’?” she asks. “Do you think that we all sit in the canteen and someone pours you a bowl of soup, someone throws in a couple of pills and everyone starts eating? How would Anzhelika know whether she’s seen doping in her environment? Probably this is all done on the sly.”

Mutko delineates clearly the do’s and don’ts of the Russian government. “It is simple,” he says. “The government is doing everything to keep sport clean.” He goes on to list his ministry’s achievements in past years, including sports tournaments such as the Sochi Olympics, and “billions of rubles” spent on sports infrastructure. But the government cannot be held accountable for everything that goes on, he says.

“The International Olympic Committee (IOC) carried out the Olympic Games in Sochi. What is the [Russian] state’s responsibility?” he asks.

Mutko adds that “every concrete piece of information” in the WADA report is being investigated and dozens of athletes have been disqualified. “Not a single person who previously worked at the athletics federation still works there.”

It’s not just the athletics department that has undergone dramatic change. At RUSADA, the troubled Russian anti-doping agency, acting head Anna Antseliovich is one of few people to have survived a cull. Anyone connected to RUSADA’s testing department has been sacked, she says. And yet none of the employees were investigated for wrongdoing prior to their firing. “We’ve decided to start with a clean slate, so that no one could have any doubts and everyone can have faith in our new system,” Antseliovich says.

Back at the lab, acting head of the Moscow laboratory, Marina Dikunets, opens the door to a small room filled with large fridges containing roughly 9,000 blood and urine samples from 2014 and 2015. They are being kept locked away on the orders of WADA.

Only four people have access to this room, including Dikunets and three technical staff. A smaller fridge in the corner contains 40 positive samples from the Sochi Olympics. In an already secure room, these samples are kept under lock and key: a chain is wrapped around the fridge and held together with a padlock. Dikunets doesn’t have the key and claims to have no idea who does. “I try to stay as far from this fridge as possible,” she says.

As she shows the group of reporters around the anti-doping laboratory, she rattles off an endless list of complicated names of tests and procedures. But the essence is simple: Out of the dozens of tests that the lab is equipped to carry out, they are now only allowed to perform a single one since WADA partially reaccredited the lab on May 12 — the same day the New York Times published its article.

The lab employees hope it is a first step toward the lab’s full restoration. In the meantime, they test their machinery and work on their methodology to kill time.

Both Dikunets and the head of the laboratory’s peptide doping and blood analysis department, Grigory Krotov, were among the 28 experts Moscow sent to work during the Sochi Olympics. They’ve been baffled by Rodchenkov’s story. The hole in the wall, the cocktails, the FSB agent lurking in a shadow lab — it sounds like a spy thriller.

“Don’t tell me about Rodchenkov. He’s a weird guy. Smart, a brilliant scientist. But ask anyone, and they’ll tell you he was weird,” says Krotov. The two feel pressed to defend themselves.

“We worked shoulder to shoulder with foreign colleagues in Sochi. After the Games, they said they’d never seen such openness at any lab as in Sochi,” says Dikunets in a sad voice.

On the advice of WADA, the Moscow lab’s next director might be a foreigner, and this is something Dikunets says she would welcome. “That might restore trust in us, it will show that we’re open and clean,” she says.

Underlying all the talk of reform is a sense that Russia is being unfairly demonized. “Somehow Russia is being accused of the existence of this problem,” says Shlyakhtin, the athletics federation chief. “But this is also about corruption within the IAAF,” he continues. “They should be looking in their own backyard instead of just looking in ours.”

In a conversation with reporters over Skype, Olympic pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, a celebrity athlete in Russia, is emotional as she responds to the risk of losing out on her fifth and last Olympic Games before she retires. “Sportsmen from other countries have been disqualified for doping and we all know their names and they are not only Russian,” she says. “If WADA and the IAAF actually want to deal with all the athletes who cheat and take doping, they have to pay attention to other countries.”

Meanwhile, Russia is likely spending several million dollars on trying to shift public opinion ahead of the IAAF’s much awaited decision on June 17 on whether or not to lift the Russian track-and-field suspension.

But it’ll take more than a public apology to repair the damage. The effect of the doping scandals on Russia’s reputation is “severe” precisely because it has confirmed an existing prejudice, says PR veteran Grabowski. “It fits in with the narrative that most people already had in their minds: That you can’t trust Russia and that it’ll do anything to win. That is very, very hard to erase.”

So regardless of whether the members of the Russian Olympic team get their tickets to Rio, true atonement will take years even if Russia is on its best behavior.

“Burson-Marsteller might get Russia to the next finish line — the Olympics,” says Grabowski. “But what happens after that is up to them.”

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