Saturday 24 March 2018

Vincent Hogan: The scale of Russian dishonesty depicted is a rancid, putrefying picture

The latest whistleblower from inside Russian sport, Grigory Rodchenkov, has been labelled a turncoat but after the Sochi winter Olympics two years ago he received the Order of Friendship from President Putin Photo: AFP/Getty
The latest whistleblower from inside Russian sport, Grigory Rodchenkov, has been labelled a turncoat but after the Sochi winter Olympics two years ago he received the Order of Friendship from President Putin Photo: AFP/Getty
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

So imagine you're a Kremlin aide despatched to deliver that rather bad news to Mr Putin last week from the pages of the New York Times.

About the great soap opera that is Russian sport today standing accused of yet more sin. About the state itself being finger-printed for formal sponsorship of corruption. About the global suspicion of just about everything your country does today on the track or in the pool or on a ski slope as having, well, some kind of sordid, fictional quality.

Imagine landing all of this on the table of your President, a man who can subdue a Siberian tiger with his bare hands. What do you do, slide the report under his door and run? Just email him a link to the story?

By Friday, the language of the Kremlin was familiarly high-sounding and defensive. "A turncoat's libel" was one description given to the allegations by Grigory Rodchenkov that Russian athletes did not simply cheat their way to the top of the Winter Olympics medals table in Sochi two years ago, but did so with state guidance.

Rodchenkov was director of the country's anti-doping laboratory at the time of those Games. Today? He lives in Los Angeles, having fled Russia for his "safety".

The story he tells of Sochi is like something out of a Kaminsky crime novel: dead-of-night subterfuge involving a secret passage between the real laboratory and a 'shadow' one; a Ministry of Sport spreadsheet with the names of those athletes whose urine specimens were to be replaced; a drug-rich cocktail for the cheats, flavoured with Chivas whiskey (for the men) and Martini vermouth (for the women).

Coming on top of November's WADA-financed report declaring Russia's track and field programme to be, essentially, rotten, you could suggest that this is rather a lot of pregnant virgins for one country to be left to explain.

Many of those implicated in the Sochi scandal used Twitter to echo the Kremlin's message.

Olympic champion Alexander Legkov called for Rodchenkov to be sued, declaring himself "300 million per cent confident" of his own innocence.

Other athletes' expressions used?

"somebody is bored. . ."

"dirty politics. . ."

"information war. . ."

"total slander. . ."

So Russia pretty much pulled its collar up to the allegations of Rodchenkov, a man awarded the prestigious Order of Friendship after Sochi (at which the country won ten more gold medals than in the previous Winter Olympics) by none other than, you guessed it, President Putin.

The significance of that Order of Friendship?

Well, no doubt, it is intended to convey appreciation of someone's hard work, but friendship for a whistleblower?


Hardly. Vitaly and Yuliya Stepanov won't be returning home any time soon after uncovering the culture of endemic cheating among their country's track and field community and, while it may have been no more than dreadful coincidence, the deaths of two former senior RUSADA colleagues within 12 days of one another in February may well have convinced Rodchenkov about the appeal of a new life in California.

He told the New York Times that he had considered his role in the doping programme to be a condition of employment.

So the bad stuff keeps piling up like a blocked sewer for Russia and yet it seems we will have to wait until an IAAF Council meeting on June 17 to hear if the suspension of their track and field stars is to be extended into the Rio Olympics. You could be forgiven a comparison here with giving the chaps found wearing balaclavas on your roof more time to explain their intentions.

June 17 might be the date for Kenyan athletes to discover their fate too after WADA last week suspended that country's anti-doping agency. The Kenyan Ministry of Sport was, it seems, at best, asleep at the wheel here.

But imagine an Olympic programme without Russian or Kenyan athletes? Between them, these two nations won 27 medals in London and, in world record pole-vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, and 800m world record holder David Rushida, they have two of track and field's biggest stars.

Make no mistake, the IAAF wants Isinbayeva and Rushida on the Olympic schedule. So does it really have the stomach to go to war here? Does the IOC?

In the realm of sports governance, there is a lot of grey today. When the Stepanovs cast that damning light on Russia's track and field programme, WADA's own Athletes' Committee requested that the agency's investigation be extended to cover all Olympic sports. This request was not granted.

Equally, the initial attitude of WADA president Craig Reedie to the Stepanovs remained curiously ambivalent, something notable too in that of IAAF president Seb Coe and IOC president Thomas Bach. Perhaps the Stepanovs' timing was an inconvenience.

Then there was the peculiar story of Dr Mark Bonar, stung in a Sunday Times scoop last month in which he was alleged to have claimed prescribing banned substances to 150 athletes. Here, the whistleblower in question went to the newspaper only because UKADA, the body now in charge of Russian reforms incidentally (with a 40pc abort rate so far due to inability to locate the relevant athlete), failed to investigate his warnings.

Worse, they did not even pass on his information to the General Medical Council. Why? They considered it outside their "jurisdiction".

No doubt you've heard too of the recent expose of a Chinese cover-up in swimming; of the 'mechanical doping' in cycling; of Maria Sharapova's, em, heart issues; and of the entire Russian U-18 hockey team suddenly, inexplicably replaced before last month's World Championships.

True, no sport can ever be hermetically sealed against cheats, no culture indemnified against corruption.

I doubt there is a more sincere figure employed in this area today than Dr Una May, the Irish Sports Council's head of anti-doping, yet our own records lie significantly tarnished too.

So the moral high ground is best not approached by any nation with too indignant a climb.

But there is a distinction to be made between the bad choices individual athletes make and evidence that those bad choices are actively promoted and facilitated by state.

The scale of Russian dishonesty depicted by Rodchenkov brings us back to the sordid cultures in Eastern Europe through the 1970s, cultures that reaped the most hideous of human tolls.

Rodchenkov estimates that as many as 100 dirty Russian urine samples were expunged in Sochi.

It is a rancid, putrefying picture, not simply of the instinct to cheat, but the broad, underlying expectation that you do so. Athletes who equivocated were blithely cast aside.

Now Rodchenkov can hardly be depicted as any kind of knight in shining armour, but he has surely brought the question of Russia to a head here.

Their Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko's view of a potential Rio ban is that it could "only be motivated by the need to tarnish Russia's image."

He should be told that his country seems to have achieved that feat rather adroitly on its own. Surely, if Russian athletes compete in Rio, the Games become reduced to parody now.

It isn't on June 17 that that message should be sent to President Putin. It is today. Otherwise, sport has arrived at the cemetery gate and all we hear is a band playing the Can Can.

Irish Independent

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