Russian Olympic Doping Scandal: How It Happened

"There's never been a state-controlled doping system that we know of, of this size."

Meldonium was added to the World Anti-Doping Agency's banned substance list. Credit: Donat Sorokin/TASS/Getty

In November 2015, a historian received an email from Nikita Kamaev, the executive director of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency. It read, in part:

"I am writing to you because you are a reputable, widely known person in the field of sports science and anti-doping issues.

I wanted to write a book about the true story of sport pharmacology and doping in Russia since in 1987 while being a young scientist began working in secret lab in USSR Institute of Sports Medicine.

Recent roughhouse in the field of anti-doping prompted me to write the memories associated with both my scientific studies and work in RUSADA from 2010.

I have the information and facts that have never been published."

Kamaev explained that he was looking for a co-author and publisher, and he wanted to gauge the historian's interest. (This email was sent to other parties as well, including Irish journalist David Walsh.) Three months later, Kamaev died of an apparent heart attack.

There's no evidence that Kamaev's death was unnatural, but the well-known poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer of the Russian Federal Security Service and KGB, and a laundry list of journalists who've died during Vladimir Putin’s regime, could leave an observer forgivably suspicious. It’s hard to avoid thinking about it, as the 2016 Rio Summer Games kick off under the cloud of Russia’s doping scandal, which in scope exceeds anything enacted during the Soviet era.

In May, the onetime director of Russia's antidoping laboratory revealed that "dozens" of the country’s Olympic athletes — including medal winners — benefited from a state-run doping program during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. It was, noted the New York Times, "one of the most elaborate — and successful — doping ploys in sports history." Indeed, Gregory Feifer, former NPR Moscow correspondent and author of Russians, told me, "There's never been a state-controlled doping system that we know of, of this size."

The International Olympic Committee's response to the scandal was, essentially, to punt, leaving the decision to ban Russian athletes in the hands of 28 sports federations. This was, for good reason, greeted with ridicule; Thomas Bach, the head of the IOC, has been deemed "Putin’s Poodle."

How did we get here? Why Russia? Why doping? Was this inevitable?

David Goldblatt, author of The Games: A Global History of the Olympics, said "a culture of cheating" dates back to the Soviet Union. From the 1950's onwards there were, at first, state-sponsored administrations of testosterone and anabolic steroids, and then "the whole pharmacological cabinet." (A caveat here and throughout: Thomas Hunt, author of Drug Games: The International Olympic Committee and the Politics of Doping, 1960-2008, observes that much of what went on in the Soviet years is opaque. “We can sort of get hints around the edges of it, but it's hard to get really direct evidence, outside of interviewing former Soviet people who were involved in the building program," he said. "It's difficult to know precisely what was happening.")

Our story begins towards the end of the Russian Empire, that vampire squid that swallowed three continents. The Empire first appeared at the Olympics in 1900, in Paris, and then returns in 1908 and 1912. There's revolution in 1917, the Soviet Union is established in 1922, and it's not until the 1952 Summer Olympics, in Helsinki, that Russian athletes return to the games. Of note: there was, among the original members of the IOC, a representative of the Russian Empire.

The Russian doping program began with wrestlers and weightlifters, who historically make up a disproportionate number of athletes expelled from the Olympics. By 1952, the Soviets, whose weightlifters had done exceedingly well, were taking testosterone to build muscle. By the early 1960s, said Goldblatt, Russia's drug program "would become routine and well-known." It began, he believes, among coaches and athletes.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia had neither the money nor organization to deal operate a doping program of its current magnitude. Amid the chaos, it was not a top priority. 

There was no international anti-doping watchdog until 1968, when the IOC instituted drug testing for the Winter Olympics in Grenoble. "Everything that happens before that is pretty much legit," said Goldblatt. As it happens, the IOC had, in fact, prohibited doping in 1938, wrote historian John Gleaves, but the rule wasn’t enforced. It's only in 1960, when a Danish cyclist died in the road race in Rome, quite possibly of amphetamines, that the IOC was spurred to act.

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Russian doping wasn't exclusively a male privilege, according to David Epstein, a reporter at ProPublica and the author of The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. To the consternation of women athletes, world records set in the 1980s seem to be stuck in Cold War amber. "Women now can go to the Olympics and not even get close to touching a world record when they win a gold medal," he said.

Americans, of course, were doping, too, but it wasn’t a top-down operation. The drugs would be given by a particular coach, or a particular doctor, or a particular training group, as opposed to coming directly from, say, the United States Olympic Committee. Not so with Russian athletes, said Epstein, who acquired detailed accounts of their entire doping program from former competitors, including runner Yuliya Stepanova. "There were remarkable similarities, and they all talked about how kind of inevitable it was," he said. "All of them were told 'Look, if you want to compete for the national team, you have to do this, you just have to.'"

A top-down operation would be difficult to pull off in the United States, he said, because our system is more centered on athletes training wherever they like in small training groups: "We're not strongly organized around our national governing bodies, our national training centers."

So: Is the doping program an actual Cold War-era Communist plot? Sort of. Current events, says Feifer, would naturally reflect the Soviet system because "the country is run by a former KGB officer who sees foreign policy—and engaging with the world, in general—as basically sort of a KGB plot." It’s a game of subterfuge and the doping program "is right out of the playbook."

Hunt, for his part, believes the real driver of Russia's drug program was an effort to instill a sense of nationalism among Russians. Success in sports, much like military success, makes people happy. This is no small thing, he says: "It's a way to maintain control of the ruling party."

Gabe Polsky, writer and director of Red Army, the 2014 documentary that looks at the decades-long dominance of the Red Army hockey team, says Putin "understands the value of sports" and he's keenly aware of the opportunity the Olympics presents to "show that the strength of the country—the physical and economic strength."

In fact, historically, Russian leaders have for years embarked on grand projects to show that Russia is competing with, or outdoing, the West. Whether it be the construction of St. Petersburg or the the building of railroads across uninhabitable Siberia, says Feifer, Russia for centuries has undertaken these projects to show it can compete with the West. This impulse can manifest itself in some ugly ways. Yes, "we saw with Sochi, of course,” but also with “the bombing of Syria."

In any case, the doping scandal is part and parcel of how Putin engages with the world. "This is certainly the way that he's chosen to show Russians that he has restored Russia to, if not the fullest extent of its Cold War greatness, but at least some measure of it," says Feifer. "I think he thought that they would get away with it and that it would be very difficult to go about doing it honestly. This is how he was taught to do things in the KGB."

Putin's endgame is to perpetuate power, and he’s been able to do this by "tapping into the very traditional Russian political culture that goes back centuries beyond the Soviet Union."

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For the Russian athletes, the scandal has been gruesome. Putin, says Feifer, has "discredited Russian athletics for years, decades." But, in a way, it doesn’t matter. For Putin's purposes, by winning medals, Russia was seen as outdoing West. And the doping scandal, he says, "is getting spun as something that is being carried out by the West in order to spite Russia."

The big question, then, is what happens from here on out? Goldblatt argues that, despite the unfairness to the clean athletes, the Russians ought to be banned: "At this point, how much more blatant can it get? If this isn't the line in the sand, as Walter says in The Big Lebowski, 'Line in the sand, dude!' The legitimacy of going to sporting institutions and the integrity of their sporting spectaculars is already pretty thin."

Feifer says that, so long as Putin remains in power, Russia's doping program will continue in some form. "I mean, everything is an arms race for him," he says. But Feifer does think Russia is capable of cleaning up its act. "I think we saw that in the 1990s, even despite Russia's great problems and the corruption and a lot of bad governance, it really was fundamentally changing." And it will change because it must. "Putin's system is unsustainable both politically and economically. It's running the country into the ground. He's not building any infrastructure. The roads are terrible. He's overseeing a massive brain drain, with some of the best and brightest are leaving Russia in droves."

But there's some light. There has to be, right?

"I think it will inevitably have to change. When that will happen, we don't know. It could happen in years. It may take decades. We don't know."