Before the 2014 Olympic Games opened in Sochi, President Vladimir Putin of Russia declared, “I would like the participants, fans, journalists and all those who watch the Games on television to see a new Russia, see its face and possibilities, take a fresh and unbiased look at the country.” The comment was meant to suggest rising pride in Russia after so many years of uncertainty and tumult. Now it is clear that Putin and his cronies have themselves sullied, in yet one more way, the new Russia they wanted to portray in a better light.
The latest evidence is a detailed report in the New York Times that Russian officials clandestinely carried out a doping program at the Sochi Games by giving athletes performance-enhancing drugs and then tampering with their urine samples to cover it up. The Times account comes from the director of the Russian anti-doping agency at the time, who played a central role and has since fled Russia. The doping involved at least 15 Russian medal winners, some of the country’s biggest stars; Russia won the most medals in the Games. None of the athletes was caught using the drugs at the time.
The director, Grigory Rodchenkov, recalled how a man from the Russian security services helped pry open the supposedly tamper-proof bottles that are standard at international competitions and replace drug-tainted urine from the athletes with clean urine collected earlier. For hours each night during the Games, Russians worked in a shadow laboratory lit by a single lamp, passing bottles of urine through a small hole in a wall, putting the clean ones in place to be tested the next day.
Responding to a German television report in 2014 alleging the existence of a sophisticated and well-established system of doping in Russian sport, the World Anti-Doping Agency investigated and issued a report in November that identified Rodchenkov as the linchpin. Rodchenkov admitted his role in the doping to the Times (but denied a charge in the report that he was part of a conspiracy to extort money from athletes to cover it up). Russia was provisionally suspended from international track and field competition, and in the coming weeks, leaders of the sport’s global governing body will decide whether to lift a ban ahead of the Olympics this summer in Rio de Janeiro. The CBS program “60 Minutes” also aired a report May 8 on Russian doping practices.
This audacious cheating resonates beyond sports. The Russian Federal Security Service, a successor to the KGB, reportedly took part in the doping operation, subverting the Olympic ideal and soiling one of the globe’s most prestigious events. Such moral vacuity has been evident in the destruction of Russia’s nascent democracy, the siphoning off of its riches by Putin’s cronies, the harassment and murder of Putin’s foes, the promotion of dishonest propaganda and the way Russia has sought to undermine Ukraine with violence. Russia’s behavior in Sochi makes the Reagan proverb “trust, but verify” seem quaint. There can be no trusting as long as Putin is in charge.