Russia's Olympic doping operation exposed by the New York Times.

The Crazy, Urine-Filled Story of How Russia Doped Its Olympic Athletes

The Crazy, Urine-Filled Story of How Russia Doped Its Olympic Athletes

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May 12 2016 3:58 PM

The Crazy, Urine-Filled Story of How Russia Doped Its Olympic Athletes

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The Opening Ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics.

Andrej Isakovic/AFP/Getty Images

Late last year, the World Anti-Doping Agency released a report alleging that Russia had developed a comprehensive program to dope its Olympic athletes, and bribed international officials to cover it up. On Thursday, the New York Times’ Rebecca R. Ruiz and Michael Schwirtz revealed new details about how that doping program worked. The Times story could be the script of a spy thriller, if that thriller were focused entirely on pee.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate’s editorial director.

The Times’ source, former Russian anti-doping laboratory director Grigory Rodchenkov, says he developed drug cocktails used by at least 15 of Russia’s medalists at the 2014 Sochi Games. Cocktail is not a term of art here. These were literal mixed drinks—steroids swirled around in liquor, with different recipes for men and women:

After years of trial and error, he said, he developed a cocktail of three anabolic steroids—metenolone, trenbolone and oxandrolone—that he claims many top-level Russian athletes used leading up to the London Olympics in 2012 and throughout the Sochi Games. …
To speed up absorption of the steroids and shorten the detection window, he dissolved the drugs in alcohol—Chivas whiskey for men, Martini vermouth for women.
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Though doped-up Russian athletes didn’t evade detection—more Russians tested positive for banned substances in 2014 than athletes of any other nationality—that wasn’t for lack of trying.

Rodchenkov tells Ruiz and Schwirtz that a shadowy figure, a man he believed worked for Russian intelligence, somehow figured out how to tamper with the tamper-proof bottles used to store athletes’ urine samples. And that was just one small part of Russian officials’ multifaceted, urine-based skulduggery:

After receiving a signal that “the urines were ready,” Rodchenkov changed from his lab coat into a Russian national team sweatshirt and left his fourth-floor office, typically after midnight. He checked that the coast was clear and made his way to Room 124, officially a storage space that he and his team had converted into a shadow laboratory.
There, he said, with the room’s single window blacked out with tape, the switch would be made.
A colleague stationed next door in the sample collection room would retrieve the correct bottles and pass them into the storage room through a circular hole cut through the wall near the floor, Dr. Rodchenkov said. During the day, he said, the hole was concealed by a small imitation-wood cabinet.

The Times reports that the “urines” were taken to another building, where the bottles were unsealed in an operation overseen by “the man Dr. Rodchenkov believed was a Russian intelligence officer.” The athletes’ excretions were then replaced with clean urine that had been collected before they’d begun their doping regimens. This was a time-consuming, labor-intensive process. “Typically, the small team worked till dawn, breaking only occasionally for instant coffee and cigarettes,” Ruiz and Schwirtz write.

Rodchenkov says he was compelled to resign his position in the immediate aftermath of last year’s WADA report on the country’s doping scheme. The former anti-doping chief, who fled to Los Angeles and is collaborating on a documentary with an American filmmaker, tells the Times that he feared for his safety after his forced resignation.

Those fears seem very rational. In an aside that’s strangely brief, Ruiz and Schwirtz note: “Back in Russia, two of Dr. Rodchenkov’s close colleagues died unexpectedly in February, within weeks of each other; both were former antidoping officials, one who resigned soon after Dr. Rodchenkov fled the country.”