On Friday, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) posted the reasoned decision from its Disciplinary Commission, in which Russian biathlete Olga Zaitseva was disqualified from the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Zaitseva’s disqualification had been announced previously, but this is the first full-length decision presenting the evidence for the disqualification of any biathlete. Olga Vilukhina and Yana Romanova have also been suspended, but the Oswald Commission’s full decisions for their cases have not yet been released.
The reasoned decision not only contains details about Zaitseva, but also additional information which should put the whole biathlon world on notice.
“Dr. Rodchenkov further states that the entire Russian biathlon team, including the Athlete Zaytseva, has been using the Duchess Cocktail before the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014,” paragraph 359 of the decision reads. “He also provided an email sent April 2013, whereby he raised concerns about the high levels of haemoglobin for the biathlete team that was detected by his laboratory.”
The Duchess Cocktail refers to a combination of performance-enhancing drugs designed by Rodchenkov, the former director of the Moscow Anti-Doping Laboratory who assisted Russian teams in numerous sports to evade anti-doping rule violations before he became a whistleblower.
The Russian sports agency and the state security agency, FSB, developed a method to open anti-doping sample bottles. Using this method, they replaced the urine of athletes who had taken the Duchess Cocktail with previously-collected clean urine so that their doping would not be detected.
Thus, Rodchenkov is asserting that every Russian performance in the biathlon events at the 2014 Olympics was tainted by illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
This is notable because the men’s biathlon team, for instance, had not previously been implicated in doping scandal that has been raging for several years. Only the likely members of the women’s biathlon relay team – Vilukhina, Zaitseva, Romanova, and Irina Starykh (who was caught using the blood-doping drug EPO before the Olympics and suspended) – were on the “Duchess List,” a list of athletes presumed to have been given the drug cocktail. No male biathletes appeared.
However, it doesn’t seem surprising that they would, given that 14 cross-country skiers, virtually the entire Russian squad for Sochi, appeared on the list, as well as the female biathletes.
And that’s what Rodchenkov said, too.
“Dr. Rodchenkov… gives indications regarding the widespread use of Prohibited Subtances notably human growth hormones and EPO in the years preceding the Olympic Games,” another paragraph of the decision reads, referring to “members [of] the biathlon and cross-country skiing teams, for which the endurance is an absolutely critical elements.”
This raises the question of whether further action will be taken against more biathletes by the IOC, or by the International Biathlon Union (IBU).
The IBU has provisionally suspended the Russian Biathlon Union, but that actually has few consequences: Russia is still slated to host a World Cup weekend in March, Russian Victor Maygurov is still the First Vice President of the IBU, and all Russian athletes are still allowed to compete in the World Cup and the Olympics (Romanova, Vilukhina, and Zaitseva retired before they were suspended).
While only Vilukhina and Romanova were initially suspended by the IOC and the IBU after the McLaren Report, Zaitseva was on the Duchess List and has been known to be implicated in the McLaren Report since at least December of last year.
In the meantime, she has maintained her innocence. So has Wolfgang Pichler, the German coach who worked with the Russian women’s biathlon team in the four years leading up to the Sochi Olympics. For his troubles, he has been banned from attending the 2018 Olympics, where he would have coached the Swedish women’s team, which he now leads.
As the decision notes, Zaitseva and her legal team raised several objections to the case against her. She claimed that to suspend her was to pursue “collective justice” based on the widespread evidence of doping by Russia, rather than referring to any fault of her own. She also attacked Rodchenkov’s character, calling him an unreliable witness.
And finally, her team questioned the methods developed by Professor Champod at the University of Lausanne to detect whether anti-doping sample bottles had been tampered with.
That was wise, because the most damning evidence against Zaitseva comes from her sample bottles. Two of her sample bottles from Sochi had multiple marks on them consistent with tampering. In one of those bottles, the urine had such high amounts of salt that it is not possible that the concentration was produced by the human body. Together, these two pieces of evidence were used to argue that her samples had been tampered with.
According to logic used by the Disciplinary Commission in this and other cases, that tampering couldn’t have happened without Zaitseva’s knowledge. DNA testing showed that the urine in the samples was hers, which indicates that if the urine was replaced, it had to have been given by her at a different time. The Commission rejected the possibility that such a urine sample could have been collected without an athlete knowing its intended purpose.
But while two experts testifying on Zaitseva’s behalf criticized Champod’s methods as being incompletely described, they were unable to convincingly explain why their questions would absolve Zaitseva of blame.
“Neither Mr Alexei Bushin, nor Ms Evgeniya Burova did, in particular, offer any alternative explanations for the presence of marks consistent with the opening of the bottles with tools of the kind used by Prof. Champod,” the decision noted. “The IOC Disciplinary Commission finds this absence of alternative explanation even more significant in the case where one of the bottles not only bears marks strongly indicative of opening, but in addition contains urine with an abnormal salt content. Both elements support the conclusion that it was opened. The expertise of Prof. Champed convincingly demonstrates how this opening, which necessarily occurred, could be operated.”
This forensic evidence was used in the Commission’s decision that Zaitseva had violated the provision of the Anti-Doping Rules for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games which prohibits tampering with samples or with the integrity of the anti-doping process.
By doing so, they also found that she was complicit in a cover-up, thus breaking another provision of the Anti-Doping Rules.
In a strange aside, a urine sample belonging to Zaitseva but collected later, in October 2014, was analyzed in order to make a DNA comparison to the Sochi samples. What such a comparison actually revealed was that the October sample contained the urine of two different women mixed together, indicating that sample-swapping continued after the 2014 Olympics.
“This result does not concern the Olympic Games in Sochi and, as such does not fall within the scope of the application of the Rules,” the Commission wrote in its decision. “It however constitutes additional evidence that the Athlete was a protected elite athlete actively engaged in doping practices.”
The Commission also concluded that Zaitseva had used prohibited performance-enhancing drugs, on the basis of testimony from Rodchenkov.
“Use or Attempted Use of a Prohibited Substance can be established by any reliable means,” the Commission wrote. “This includes witness evidence.”
In an affidavit to the Disciplinary Commission hearing, Rodchenkov shared his own observations, many of which were based on detailed notes he had taken in a daily diary over the years. He also provided emails and documents related to Zaitseva and to the biathlon team.
“Dr Rodchenkov provides a list issued in October 2012 reflecting the clean urine bank existing at that time,” paragraph 358 reads. “The Athlete Zaytseva is mentioned on this list, with an indication that her urine was delivered to the Moscow Laboratory on 24 October 2012.”
“Dr Rodchenkov also recalled that in 2013 and early 2014 he had numerous conversations about the Athlete Zaytseva, as she was on a protected list,” another paragraph reads. “In autumn 2013, he took part to a discussion with the Athlete Zaytseva at the Ministry of Sports in Moscow. During this meeting the abnormal [Athlete Biological Passport’ data, due to her constant [performance-enhancing drugs] use, was discussed.”
And there was also evidence that Zaitseva was both doping, and also being tested more frequently than many other athletes, which is consistent with a previously-stated policy of the IBU to do “targeted testing” on athletes with suspicious biological passport profiles.
“Dr Rodchenkov specifically recalls swapping sessions of the Athlete’s numerous sample,” paragraph 361 reads. “Due to the intensity of the testing, Dr Rodchenkov underlines that they almost ran out of the Athlete’s clean urine. He remembers that the Athlete Zaytseva provided three plastic bottles of clean urine to freeze and store at the FSB and that additional urine had to be delivered.”
Zaitseva argued that Rodchenkov’s recollections and correspondence should not be used against her because of the illegal actions he had taken in the past. The Disciplinary Commission disagreed.
“Given the insistence of the Athlete’s attacks, the Disciplinary Commission will add the following,” the Commission wrote. “The Athlete refers to the past actions and behaviours of Dr Rodchenkov. In this respect, the Disciplinary Commission wants to be very clear in confirming that considering Dr Rodchenkov as a reliable witness is not in any way an approval of his past actions and his moral character. His actions, while being a director of the Moscow Laboratory, are despicable and inexcusable. This said, in a case of a conspirative scheme, the main evidence is often coming from participants, who accept to stand as witness.”
It is an explanation which the Commission also provided in its reasoned decision for disqualifying cross-country skier Alexander Legkov, and with upwards of 40 athletes having been disqualified from the 2014 Olympics, it is a justification that will likely be shared many more times as well.