Grigory Rodchenkov says tens of thousands of elite athletes spanning every major sport have got away with doping, and continue to do so in nations all around the world, aided and abetted in many cases by corrupt anti-doping officials like himself.
The linchpin in Russia’s state-sponsored doping scam is talking to me in heavy disguise and via video link from an undisclosed location in the United States. He has been in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) witness protection programme for almost five years since fleeing his homeland and turning whistleblower.
The 61-year-old former head of Moscow’s main anti-doping lab has had no physical contact with his wife, Veronika, or children Vasily and Marina, since late 2015, the year after he helped Russia cheat their way to the top of the medals table at the Sochi Winter Olympics.
Russian whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov has provided new explosive admissions on doping
Russia’s president Vladimir Putin would be glad to see Rodchenkov dead for exposing that cheating, and the latter’s just-published autobiography, extracts of which appeared in the Mail on Sunday last month, details this — and more.
Rodchenkov is believed to have had appearance-changing surgery and has access to armed guards although, for ‘operational’ reasons, neither he nor his lawyer will confirm this.
He pauses when I ask which part of his story will shock people most back home. He considers for a few moments, then says they will be most surprised he was still, in effect, running his laboratory — which was and is accredited by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) — during the summer of 2011 while confined to a psychiatric hospital, having tried to kill himself while under investigation for alleged drug dealing.
Yes, you read that correctly.
The WADA lab boss was arrested for trafficking and selling steroids (his book candidly describes his own extensive drug use and dealing), then felt such pressure from the probe that he tried to stab himself in the heart and was sectioned.
‘I was behind metal doors and reinforced windows, but with a computer, and the internet,’ he tells me. ‘I was with people who are killers, and other criminals, people being assessed as to whether they needed to face court or have healing care.
Russia’s president Vladimir Putin would be glad to see Rodchenkov dead for his admissions
‘I think people will be upset that I was operating as a laboratory director from inside the psychiatric clinic, via my computer, when everybody was sleeping after lunch. This I think would be the most shocking thing.’
He later went back to work full-time as the WADA lab boss to oversee the wholesale corruption of the 2014 Sochi Games.
This begs an obvious question: if Rodchenkov — respected by his scientific peers as an anti-doping leader — was exposed as one of sport’s biggest cheats, then how many others in anti-doping are corrupt?
Lots, says Rodchenkov, and helping thousands to cheat. He says he knows ‘for sure’ there are ‘bent’ anti-doping officials around the world. He says you only need to look at Transparency International’s ‘Corruption Perceptions Index’ (CPI) to see where the biggest problems lie.
The CPI rates nations on a scale of 0 to 100, with the lowest numbers indicating most corruption. ‘At the laboratories from countries below 50, like Russia on 28, there is high probability [of] corruption at sample collection sites, or inside the laboratory,’ he says.
Rodchenkov says he was still running his laboratory while confined to a psychiatric hospital
‘The countries above 50, less [corruption]. It’s very simple and very clear. The problem is WADA don’t take into account the disparity between countries. There’s a huge inequality.’
Rodchenkov points out that a country without a WADA lab, like Kenya which has a CPI rating of 28, will also likely be riddled with institutional corruption, including in anti-doping.
The Mail on Sunday analysed the current CPI scores of the 27 different countries where WADA has accredited labs, and the ‘most corrupt’ nine nations on this list — Russia, Brazil, Thailand, Turkey, India, China, Romania, South Africa and Greece — have all had their WADA-accredited labs closed, suspended and/or investigated in recent years.
When asked to name specific corrupt labs currently, Rodchenkov said: ‘I have serious suspicions but I cannot tell you because now WADA are investigating some laboratories. I know for sure some, but I cannot tell you because it’s part of an investigation [which is covered by] non-disclosure.’
Rodchenkov says his own experience and WADA-funded studies inform his knowledge of widespread cheating, although levels vary from sport to sport. In weightlifting he has seen ‘85 per cent to 95 per cent’ using drugs. In athletics, upwards of 40 per cent, and at pan-sport international events, perhaps even more.
For the latter two examples he cites as evidence WADA-funded surveys conducted in 2011 and kept secret for years.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) asks for athletes to be ‘clean’ from illegal doping
The surveys asked 2,167 sportspeople at the 2011 World Athletics Championships in Daegu, South Korea, and at the Pan-Arab Games (PAG) in Doha, Qatar, held in the same year, about their drug use.
It concluded that 44 per cent of the Daegu respondents had taken banned drugs in the previous year [in track and field], while some 57 per cent of the PAG sportspeople had done so.
Rodchenkov contrasts these figures with the very low numbers of cheats caught by conventional testing mostly in place now.
‘To catch cheaters it should be intelligence and it should be whistleblower information [not just urine samples],’ he says. ‘Otherwise you have only 1-2 per cent of positives as WADA reports in their annual reports, but doesn’t reflect the real situation.’
Rodchenkov fills his days now helping WADA to build cases against drug cheats unearthed in the scam he organised. There are currently 298 cases pending against individuals across 27 sports.
The fear and anxiety of his first months in hiding and in exile have transformed into a businesslike calm. His work is not yet done.
‘Of course you can be frightened for days or weeks but not for years,’ he tells me. ‘So I’m absolutely — if not easy mind — I’m quite relaxed.’