On Thursday, the New York Times published an exclusive exposé that details the extensive Russian doping program that landed more than a dozen of the country’s athletes on the medal podium at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
Featured at the heart of the breathtaking story is Grigory Rodchenkov, the man who ran the country’s antidoping lab. There, the Times writes, “he developed a three-drug cocktail of banned substances that he mixed with liquor and provided to dozens of Russian athletes, helping to facilitate one of the most elaborate — and successful — doping ploys in sports history.” (The Times notes that “Dr. Rodchenkov’s account could not be independently verified, but it was consistent with the broad findings of a report published last year by the World Anti-Doping Agency.”)
The story goes on to recount “dark-of-night” operations in which officials replaced urine samples that showed signs of performance-enhancing drugs with clean samples taken months before.
“People are celebrating Olympic champion winners, but we are sitting crazy and replacing their urine,” Rodchenkov, who now lives in Los Angeles and is working on a documentary by an American filmmaker named Bryan Fogel, told the Times. “Can you imagine how Olympic sport is organized?”
Here are seven more takeaways from the story.
1. The Doping Operation Was the Culmination of Years of Effort
The well-rehearsed program was the pinnacle of a decade-long effort to get gold, silver and bronze medals for Russian athletes. “We were fully equipped, knowledgeable, experienced and perfectly prepared for Sochi like never before,” Rodchenkov said. “It was working like a Swiss watch.” After the Olympics ended, Rodchenkov received the prestigious Order of Friendship from the man himself, Vladimir Putin.
2. The Cheating Process Was Meticulous and Businesslike
Elaborate spreadsheets listed athletes who were on the doping program and dictated that their urine samples be switched if they won medals. Secretive as it was, the system was complex, involving the destruction of possibly thousands of urine samples in a cover up.
3. History Added Pressure
The Russian Olympic Team had fared quite poorly at the previous Winter Games, in Vancouver, Canada, in 2010. There, it only came in sixth place in the overall medal count. Such an outcome would not have been acceptable in Sochi, where Putin had been deeply and personally involved in the planning. Russian athletes, quite simply, had to win the most medals. Gold medals. Ultimately, the competitors came through, winning 33 medals, including 13 gold, which was 10 more than they had nabbed in Vancouver.
4. But Rodchenkov Eventually Fell Out of Favor
Last November, the doctor was identified by the World Anti-Doping Agency as “the linchpin” in Russia’s state-sponsored doping program. It accused him of extortion (which he denies), covering up positive drug tests and switching urine samples. The WADA report forced him to resign and, fearing for his safety, relocate to L.A. Meanwhile, two of his colleagues died in close succession in Russia quite unexpectedly.
5. The Future of International Sport Involving Russia Is in Limbo
Another effect of November’s WADA report: Russia was provisionally prohibited from competing in international track and field competitions, and a decision has not yet been made on whether they will be able to participate in the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro later this summer. What’s more, Russia is scheduled to host a perhaps even an bigger sporting event in 2018 — the FIFA World Cup of soccer.
6. Denials, Denials
According to the Times, “Several of the federations [that operate various sporting events] replied and denied any wrongdoing by their athletes. A spokesperson for the Russian Bobsled Federation said that all of its athletes ‘underwent doping control procedures in accordance to the rules … All of them were clean, and not one positive result was found.'” However, “the International Olympic Committee called Dr. Rodchenkov’s account ‘very detailed and very worrying’ on Thursday. ‘We ask the World Anti-Doping Agency to investigate immediately,’ a spokesman said.”
7. Rodchenkov Now Lives a Real Southern California Life — Well, Almost
During his six months in L.A., Rodchenkov has gone a bit Hollywood, helping out with Fogel’s documentary, “Icarus,” which is due out in September. But he otherwise spends his time on the much less-glamorous tasks of writing in his diary, gardening and making borscht.