Until quite recently the question of doping in sport was one of taste – which drugs to take and in what quantities – rather than ethics. In the late 19th century, athletes ate nitroglycerin to dilate the blood vessels and sucked on sugar cubes dipped in ether to dull the pain of prolonged exertion. Before World War Two, Belgian cyclists relied on heroin and amphetamines (a mixture they called ‘la Bomba’) to stay awake during 24-hour track races, and drank from water bottles filled with ‘la Moutarde’: liquid cocaine. Thomas Hicks won the St Louis marathon in 1904 fuelled by raw eggs, injections of strychnine and doses of brandy, which were given to him as he ran. His doctor reported that the victory showed ‘drugs are of much benefit to athletes.’
All of this was tolerated, even encouraged, by organisers, and by fans who were less interested in their sport being clean than they were in seeing their heroes pushed ever harder. Doping has been banned in some Olympic sports since 1908 (a wider ban was introduced in 1928), but athletes weren’t tested in a systematic way until the late 1960s – not least because few effective tests existed. In the 1950s, the rulebook for the Tour de France still stated that riders who wished to use drugs would have to supply their own. Things began to change, at least publicly, when several speed skaters nearly died after overdosing on amphetamines during the 1952 games in Helsinki. Fifa became the first international sporting body to conduct large-scale drug tests during the 1966 World Cup, when three footballers from East Germany tested positive for stimulants (all three blamed contamination from inhalers used to treat bronchitis and were let off). The International Olympic Committee followed suit a few years later, in response to public pressure following the death of the Danish cyclist Knud Jensen during the Rome games in 1960, but comprehensive testing wasn’t introduced at the Olympics until Munich in 1972, when thousands of tests were conducted, leading to the disqualification of seven athletes. Other sports tried to clean up their acts around the same time. The death of Tommy Simpson, the English cyclist whose heart stopped a kilometre from the summit of Mont Ventoux during the 1967 Tour de France, called time on unregulated drug use in professional cycling. Empty packets of amphetamines were found in the pockets of his jersey, and his bidon was filled with brandy.
Before the advent of mass testing, the most popular performance-enhancing – or ‘ergogenic’ – drugs in most sports were stimulants: substances that improved speed and stamina but wore off relatively quickly. These are difficult to hide if tested on the day of competition, however, and have to be present in the body at detectable levels in order to be effective, so attention turned to chemicals that offered an advantage during training, in the months or sometimes years before a competition. The most common drugs used by dopers today are testosterone and its artificial derivatives as well as peptides: amino-acid chains that help build muscle mass, such as human growth hormone and erythropoietin (EPO). These are sometimes supplemented with blood doping, in which blood is taken from the athlete’s body and reinjected months before competition, boosting their red blood cell count. Similar effects can be achieved with injections of EPO, which stimulates the production of blood cells in bone marrow. Because many of these chemicals are produced naturally by the body, and red blood cell counts can also be boosted by training at high altitude or sleeping in an oxygen tent (both of which are allowed within the rules of most sports), these techniques have until recently been difficult to detect.
In 2009 the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the organisation now known as World Athletics, introduced a new method of doping control. Rather than testing individual samples for the presence of specific substances, athletes are obliged to provide several blood samples over a longer period of time. By measuring different bio-markers – relative levels of haemoglobin, haematocrit (the proportion of red blood cells in the blood stream) and reticulocyte (immature red blood cells) – an individual baseline can be established. If this changes significantly during competition then it’s likely that an athlete has doped, because in unadulterated bodies these values don’t fluctuate significantly. Crucially this ‘bio-passport’ system means that, for the anti-doping agencies, a clean sample is as useful as a dirty one, as it establishes the standard against which future fluctuations can be measured. Manipulating the results of individual samples, or hiding an athlete’s drug use by using diuretics to flush out their system during competition, have become far less effective methods than they once were.
Despite this, top-level sport remains extremely dirty. In an era of unprecedented biological surveillance, athletes continue to cheat and to feel they have no choice but to do so. The long-running state-sponsored Russian doping programme culminated in the mass manipulation of in-competition testing during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics – one of the biggest, and most fascinating, examples of systematic doping in the history of sport. Since then, Russia’s persistent refusal to share its data and stored samples, to investigate its own anti-doping officials properly or to allow independent access to testing facilities has led to a series of sanctions, the most recent of which, in 2019, banned Russian athletes from international competition for four years (reduced to two years on appeal). This left Russian athletes ineligible for the Tokyo Olympics, but in a typical Wada fudge they have been permitted to compete under the banner of the ‘Russian Olympics Committee’. Their medals won’t contribute to Russia’s official tally, although one suspects this will make little difference to Russians themselves.
More rarely discussed is the role of Russian athletes, scientists and reporters in resisting and uncovering the culture of compulsive doping. The Russian Affair is an account of a young Russian couple – Yulia and Vitaly Stepanov – who helped expose a vast doping conspiracy. David Walsh, a sports journalist for the Times with a good record of uncovering cheats (he wrote about his role in exposing Lance Armstrong in his previous book, Seven Deadly Sins), tells their story with the breathless drive of an airport thriller. The Stepanovs first met at an anti-doping conference in 2008. Yulia was a promising medium-distance runner; Vitaly was an almost pathologically naive sports scientist who had recently got a job with the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (Rusada). They married a year later. Vitaly soon realised his role at the agency wasn’t to catch cheats, but to protect them. More devastating still, he discovered Yulia was herself a serious doper. He became a whistleblower and when Yulia was given a two-year ban for a drugs violation, and her hopes of international success faded, she began to help him in his campaign against large-scale doping.
They began by writing to officials at the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) and at the IAAF, but were dismissed. Eventually they made contact with the German journalist Hajo Seppelt and following his advice started secretly to record conversations with coaches and other high-ranking Rusada officials. They were the star witnesses in Seppelt’s documentary, The Secrets of Doping: How Russia Makes Its Winners, which was broadcast in 2014 and caused a sensation. Yulia and Vitaly fled Russia for Germany just before it was broadcast, and now lead quiet lives in America as born-again Christians.
The Russian Affair demonstrates just how necessary ‘running dirty’ was for a professional athlete in Russia in the 2010s (and, one suspects, today). When Yulia was competing, coaches decided not just who would dope and who wouldn’t – and who would be caught and who wouldn’t – but where individual athletes would finish in national races. With a glut of potential world champions, money was more important than talent. ‘First-class’ service cost an athlete $5000 per season and a 5 per cent cut of all other winnings. If a dirty athlete alerted Rusada to a potentially positive sample before it was tested it could simply be poured down the sink; once registered in the system the price was 30,000 roubles – $1000 or so. Payment for protection in international competitions was far more expensive. The 2010 London Marathon winner Liliya Shobukhova claimed to have paid the Russian Athletics Federation nearly half a million euros to cover up a positive test.
For most of her career Yulia was in economy class, paying her coach (Sergei Portugalov, who received a lifetime ban for doping offences in 2017) $1000 plus 5 per cent of all winnings for a season on his programme. This left her vulnerable. Athletes who didn’t opt for the full service often found themselves sacrificed to the international anti-doping agencies, as Rusada was always looking for easy scalps to satisfy Wada quotas. ‘We are in the business of showing that we did many tests and we deliver plenty of positives,’ Vitaly told one official in an email, ‘but those who test positive are carefully chosen from the second or third tier. They show that Russian sport is clean. People look at the numbers and mistakenly believe we are serious.’ Yulia’s tragedy was that she was deemed by her coaches to be a third-tier athlete: whatever her talent, and no matter how hard she trained, she would never be a contender.
The Stepanovs’ story is partly about the transition from the doping culture of the Cold War, when sporting prowess was a state concern, to one that was far more individualistic and entrepreneurial. Russian sports scientists who had been paid handsomely to produce world-leading athletes whatever the cost were left largely to their own devices after 1991. ‘In the old days,’ Walsh writes, ‘a coach successfully applying “special methods” was rewarded with a nice car, a decent apartment, perhaps a dacha in the countryside. In the new world, old practices evolved. Now a coach was free to keep whatever he could earn by his own enterprise.’ One of the most flamboyant actors in the new doping economy of the 1990s and 2000s was Grigory Rodchenkov, an amateur long-distance runner turned sports scientist who was responsible for the Sochi affair and now lives in the US under witness protection. His account of the events has come out in paperback just in time for the Tokyo Olympics.
Rodchenkov will be familiar to some as the dishevelled, Orwell-quoting star of Bryan Fogel’s documentary Icarus (he also features tangentially in Walsh’s book, where Yulia accuses him of extortion; Rodchenkov, in turn, is dismissive of the Stepanovs, calling them a ‘telegenic young couple’ and Yulia ‘a has-been runner I have never met’). Fogel initially approached Rodchenkov to act as a sort of doping consultant on a film he was making about amateur cycling. Rodchenkov, who was then director of the Moscow Anti-Doping Centre, an IOC-accredited lab, happily prescribed Fogel a course of steroids and taught him ways to avoid detection. His chaotic charm and inability to keep a secret meant he soon became the star of Fogel’s film.
As a teenager Rodchenkov had been a talented runner and had for a time considered turning professional. At university, friends encouraged him to try a ‘light course of anabolic steroids’ and so he asked his mother, a nurse, to source the Retabolil he needed. He lay face down on her sofa as she injected it into his bum. ‘The drug,’ he writes, ‘felt intoxicating – I could feel energy pouring into my gluteus maximus, the most powerful muscle in a runner’s body … I had joined the world of sport doping. It would become my life, my career, my joy – and my downfall.’ He won his next race easily, running five kilometres in under fourteen minutes.
After further modest success on the track he began selling steroids to other athletes, particularly East German runners for whom they were far cheaper in Soviet Russia than back home. During his national service the army tried to recruit him to their track team, but he instead decided to pursue a PhD under Nikolai Semenov, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist. Rodchenkov’s first-hand knowledge of doping made him relatively unusual in the world of anti-doping – he often already possessed personal samples of some of the rarer drugs his lab wanted to detect, which were then used to calibrate their machinery.
At first Rodchenkov worked directly for the state. To cover for positive tests, dirty samples would be made to disappear or left in such a way that they spoiled. Some were swapped with clean samples provided by coaches, friends or relatives of the athletes. So much doping went on that ‘in some training camps, finding clean urine was a problem … The coaches were drinking gallons of water and emptying their bladders into their athlete’s sample bottles.’ To make the clean samples match the colour of the dirty ones, Rodchenkov and his colleagues added Nescafé granules.
His grandest project – the one which eventually did for him – took place during the 2014 Sochi winter games, the first Olympics to be held on Russian soil since Moscow in 1980. Sochi was to be the ‘glittering jewel’ in Putin’s crown and Rodchenkov was under pressure to produce winners. In the run-up he had invented a new doping method called ‘the Duchess’: a cocktail of three anabolic steroids – methenolone, trenbolone and oxandrolone – administered via an alcoholic solvent (Chivas Regal whisky for men, Martini vermouth for women), which made the drugs quick to metabolise and easier to flush from the body. Rodchenkov was confident the Duchess couldn’t be detected, but that didn’t mean it was without risk. Even if athletes passed the in-competition testing, samples could be kept and tested again once new screening techniques had been developed. This delayed retesting was becoming a problem for dopers: new techniques emerged all the time, and subsequent testing could strip athletes of awards won years earlier. As a precaution, Rodchenkov hatched a plan that would allow him to swap dirty samples for clean ones before they were sent for testing.
The Russian state lab in Sochi was the official drug testing facility for the whole games. As head of the lab, Rodchenkov’s work was overseen by Wada, an organisation in denial about Russian doping. ‘No one at Wada,’ Walsh writes, ‘had ever imagined an entire national agency turning rogue.’ At Sochi, testers divided individual urine samples into ‘A’ and ‘B’ samples, which were both stored in special tamper-proof bottles. The A sample would be tested during the competition; the B sample was put into storage. If irregularities were found in the A sample, then the B sample could be tested to confirm the results. B samples could also be kept for testing at a later date.
Before the games Rodchenkov was assigned a shadowy FSB agent called Blokhin, who developed a way to tamper with the tamper-proof bottles. A few days before the opening ceremony another assistant, a former marathon runner named Yuri Chizhov, drilled a small hole in the wall of the lab, connecting Room 125, which was under constant CCTV surveillance monitored by Wada staff, with the ‘operational’ room 124, which wasn’t. Each night samples taken from Russian athletes on the ‘Duchess list’ were passed through this hole and the urine in both bottles replaced with clean, pre-tested urine. It was an operation, Rodchenkov writes, ‘as delicately choreographed as the most intricate performance at the Bolshoi ballet, but instead of dancers, we were using the secret police’.
Things began to unravel the following summer. Rodchenkov was approached by Seppelt for an interview, which he blithely accepted. Seppelt’s documentary aired a few months later, prompting an investigation by Wada, which in 2015 found evidence of wide-ranging drug abuse within Russian athletics and imposed a three-year ban on Russian track and field athletes in international competitions. Realising the game was up, Rodchenkov confessed everything to Fogel and the New York Times. He fled to America, leaving his wife and two children in Russia.
Rodchenkov’s downfall wasn’t a Damascene moment. He takes what he calls ‘a perverse pride in his past unethical achievements’ and is bullish about what he sees as the positive aspects of doping in sport. The two main arguments against doping – that it is bad for athletes’ health and that it is unfair – are, according to Rodchenkov, unsatisfactory. The training regimes most elite athletes endure are far more injurious to their health than doping. Used carefully, ergogenic drugs may even protect them from harm. ‘Training at the Olympic level,’ he writes, ‘puts significant strain on the body. Steroids reduce fatigue and trauma, and can also help muscles recover more quickly. I am not aware of any studies concluding that these substances are harmful in moderate doses, and I know plenty of athletes who used them for years and have lived long and healthy lives.’
It’s also not obvious that the advantages provided by doping should necessarily be thought of as unfair. ‘Some athletes,’ Rodchenkov writes,
are genetically gifted and can get to the top of their sport with natural training techniques; meanwhile, an athlete who seems unpromising can, after a modest doping regimen, show huge progress in developing skills and stamina, progressing to the point where he or she can challenge visibly stronger rivals. An average athlete might have more room for development and be more dedicated than the ‘natural’ competitor … If sport was ‘clean’ that would be a reverse handicap, favouring naturally gifted athletes over their less advantaged rivals.
Without drugs, only a few talented athletes can ever compete at the highest levels of sport; by using them, those with unrealised potential are given their chance. Rather than seeking to make sport ‘clean’, Rodchenkov proposes that sporting bodies should try to inculcate a culture of sporting ‘honesty’: encouraging athletes to be explicit about the methods they use to improve their performance. A centrally administered, comprehensive and open doping culture in sport would allow for greater equality of opportunity for athletes. It’s an interpretation of fairness in sport that might be worth revisiting.