Sport

If powerful nations are allowed to get away with blatant cheating and corruption in the sporting arena, it’s no wonder their bullying tactics are at full force in international politics. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The dark history of Russian sport

Kamila Valieva during her free skating routine at the Beijing Winter Olympics.
Kamila Valieva during her free skating routine at the Beijing Winter Olympics.
Credit: Catherine Ivill / Getty Images

They called it the “disappearing positive methodology”, and it began not long after Russia’s embarrassment at the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010 – just three gold medals, their lowest since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The embarrassment was followed by a sense of urgency to redeem it: Russia was hosting the next Winter Games. A repeated failure was unthinkable.

And so, the disappearing positive methodology was born – an amusingly bureaucratic name for what was a sophisticated, state-sanctioned doping program. We know about it because of Dr Grigory Rodchenkov, who was once the director of Moscow’s anti-doping agency – another amusing name for an entity that was devoted to its opposite – and who courageously testified about the program to American authorities, the World Anti-Doping Agency, and the documentary-maker Bryan Fogel, whose film Icarus would win an Oscar.

But Rodchenkov was not alone. His declarations were preceded by husband and wife Vitaly Stepanov and Yuliya Stepanova, who fled to Germany in 2014. Yuliya was a distinguished Russian runner; her husband an official in Russia’s anti-doping agency. Yuliya brought tapes. After a German documentary aired, Vladimir Putin called her “Judas”. This was fairly interpreted as a death threat.

In 2016, the so-called McLaren report, commissioned by WADA, would corroborate much of Rodchenkov’s testimony. The details are extraordinary, and Rodchenkov himself likened it to the spy fantasies of James Bond. With the encouragement of Putin, the Ministry of Sport, alongside Russia’s principal secret security agency, the FSB, helped organise a scheme for both the doping of athletes and the avoidance of detection.

To start, Rodchenkov designed a cocktail of steroids that was very difficult to detect. The concoction was called “The Duchess”, and was dissolved in alcohol – whisky for the men, vermouth for the women. Meanwhile, the FSB worked on ways to exploit the BEREG-KIT – the ostensibly tamper-proof urine sample bottles used by WADA. And they cracked it. Clean urine samples were taken from athletes and frozen, then thawed and used to replace the contaminated samples in the now compromised bottles. As a fail-safe, the Ministry of Sport, with the direction of the minister, ran interference and altered test results when necessary.

In the lead-up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, as Putin was ordering the removal of the homeless from streets, hundreds of athletes had consumed The Duchess. Russia won the most medals and its gold medal tally was equal with Norway (four golds were among the medals that would later be stripped). One year later, Dr Rodchenkov had fled to Los Angeles with his laptop and a trove of evidence. Soon, the program would be globally exposed. In 2016, two of Rodchenkov’s deputies died, suspiciously, within a fortnight. Rodchenkov himself lives in a secret US site guarded 24/7 by the FBI.

The Olympics, Vladimir Putin said in 2014, “are intended to depoliticise the most pressing international issues and open additional ways to build bridges”. In 2020, the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach, wrote: “The Olympic Games are not about politics.”

And here was China’s spokesperson for the Beijing Winter Olympics last month: “What I want to say, there is only one China in the world.” And then: “We are always against the idea of politicising the Olympic Games.”

Of course.

“It’s a copout, it’s always been a copout,” Bonita Mersiades tells me. Mersiades was a senior sports administrator who worked on Australia’s World Cup bid before turning whistleblower on FIFA corruption. She gave evidence to the FBI and has basically been unemployed since. “Of course sport is political. Sport and politics is intrinsically mixed. It’s nonsense to say that it’s not. What else is Saudi Arabia’s takeover of Newcastle United? Or Qatar’s World Cup? It’s soft power. What was Russia’s doping program, if it wasn’t political?”

 

The Russian doping scheme, which involved at least 1000 athletes, the Ministry for Sport, and the new KGB – and which was not unique in Russian/Soviet history – might have attracted stiff sanctions from the IOC.

It did not. After threatening to ban all Russian athletes from Rio’s Summer Olympics in 2016, the IOC allowed non-weightlifting and track and field athletes to compete. A similarly qualified punishment was levied against Russia by the IOC for the next Winter Olympics in 2018: 168 Russian athletes competed, albeit under the banner of “Olympic Athletes from Russia”. Their national colours and anthem were barred from competition and ceremonies.

At last year’s Tokyo Games, and last month’s Beijing Games, Russian athletes competed again, this time under the ostensibly neutral banner of “Russia Olympic Committee” – an almost meaningless technicality. Then, last month, it was revealed that 15-year-old skating prodigy Kamila Valieva – who only days earlier was the first woman to land a quadruple jump in Olympic competition, and helped Russia win a gold medal in the team figure skating – had tested positive for a banned substance back in December. There was confusion, astonishment – and, from competitors, considerable anger – about why Valieva had been allowed to compete, and why it had taken so long to reveal the result.

Under impossible pressure, Valieva then foundered in the individual program, which she was favoured to win. After her conspicuously poor routine, and in visible distress, she was brutally chastised by her coach. Those images will define these Games. Thomas Bach admitted it “disturbed” him.

Elsewhere, Russia’s sports minister Vitaly Mutko – the one who oversaw the doping scheme – continued to sit on FIFA’s executive board after the doping revelations. Russia hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2018 FIFA World Cup. When the scandal broke, FIFA were pressured to expel Mutko, and yet, in keeping with its famous cronyism, its president, Gianni Infantino, resisted. Eventually, in late 2017, Mutko departed, but Russia remained host of the last World Cup.

“I’ve always said, and I’ve been on the record saying, that when Russia was awarded the 2018 World Cup in 2010, that was done more efficiently – if I can put it that way – than even Qatar winning [this year’s World Cup],” Bonita Mersiades says. “… they had it so stitched up that they won it on the first vote.

“In terms of Russia, none of this behaviour is new. Obviously, invading Ukraine is new, but the behaviour that has led to this is not, and they have been allowed to get away with so much for so long, and that includes in the sporting world. Russia have a win-at-any-cost, whatever-it-takes approach to almost everything that they do, and in the sporting world, whether it be the Olympics and the IOC, or whether it be football and FIFA, that has been their approach all along.”

This week in a curiously vague statement, Roman Abramovich, the Russian oligarch who bought English Premier League club Chelsea in 2003, announced he’d relinquished “stewardship”, but not ownership, of the club. Just days later, he announced his intention to sell – likely an attempt to avoid British sanctions against Russia’s mega-rich diaspora.

In other moves, the IOC and FIFA banned Russia from all international competition. In FIFA’s case “until further notice”. Europe’s chief soccer body, UEFA, stripped St Petersburg’s hosting of the Champions League final in May and moved it to Paris. UEFA also ended their long and lucrative sponsorship deal with Gazprom, the state-owned Russian company and the world’s largest exporter of natural gas.

For Bonita Mersiades, and anyone else paying attention, it’s too little too late. In 2015, US prosecutors publicly disclosed their multiple cases against FIFA officials for racketeering, money laundering and other forms of “systemic corruption”. FIFA president Sepp Blatter resigned, and there have been several convictions and more indictments yet to be prosecuted. Including Blatter’s.

“I’m always mindful of what the FBI and DOJ [Department of Justice] said about FIFA back in 2015,” Mersiades says. “And that is that it was a Mafia-like organisation. And culture hasn’t changed within FIFA. Fundamentally, if you’ve got a Mafia-like organisation, you take out some of those [individuals], and you just replace them with new ones. And to ban Russia? It wasn’t their natural position, their natural position was ‘We’ll just wait and see’ – it wasn’t to do the right thing. They’ve changed in how they present themselves publicly, but behind the scenes a lot of people would say they haven’t changed that much at all.”

At Beijing’s closing ceremony last month, children waved lanterns while fireworks spelled out “One World, One Family” in the sky above the stadium. And 2700 kilometres west of Beijing, at least a million Uygurs and Kazakhs were held in concentration camps in the province of Xinjiang, separated from their children and subjected to forced sterilisations, abortions and labour. Meanwhile, columns of Russian troops arrayed themselves around Ukraine.

It is not for international sporting bodies to broker peace in times of war. But it’s too much when systemically corrupt, compromised or cowardly institutions ask us to accept their maudlin clichés about common humanity.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 5, 2022 as "Playing to win".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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