GeneralInterviewsNewsThe Delicate Case of Russia: Who’s Speaking Out and Why

Avatar Alex KochonMay 17, 2016
Men's relay day at the Laura Cross-Country Ski Center on Sunday at the Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
The day of the men’s 4 x 10 k relay at the Laura Cross-Country Ski Center at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Sweden went on to take gold, Russia silver and France bronze in the event.

Max Cobb’s motivation to voice his disdain for doping dates back to the 1992 Albertville Olympics. Justin Wadsworth’s stems from being an athlete who had suspicions, but moreover, from watching his wife Beckie Scott miss out on her chance atop the Olympic podium after having been beat out by two Russians who were eventually disqualified for using performance-enhancing drugs.

For both, when it comes to Russia, they’re direct.

“The level of fraud and deceit that was allegedly put in place for the Sochi Games around the anti-doping effort is just a complete assault on everything that sport and the Olympic movement stand for,” Cobb, president and CEO of US Biathlon, told FasterSkier this past weekend.

He was reacting to The New York Times report, published Thursday, May 12, that suggested dozens of Russians, including 14 cross-country skiers, participated in a state-run doping program at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

“There’s enough evidence in the past, with how many positive doping cases the Russians have had,” said Wadsworth, who recently left his post as head coach of the Canadian cross-country ski team after five seasons with the team. “I think that alone is enough to have reason to try to put some sanctions on them.”

Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg (NOR), Maiken Caspersen Falla (NOR), Natalia Matveeva (RUS), (l-r), claim the podium in Drammen (NOR).   (Photo: Fischer/NordicFocus.com)
Russia’s Natalia Matveeva (r), who tested positive for recombinant EPO in 2009 and was suspended until March 2011, joins Norway’s Ingvild Flugstad Østberg (l) and Maiken Caspersen Falla (c) on the podium this past February at the 2016 classic sprint in Drammen, Norway. (Photo: Fischer/NordicFocus)

Wadsworth was referring to a trend leading up to the 2010 Olympics, in which about a dozen Russian cross-country skiers were suspended for failing drug tests between 2001 and 2009.

“When I first came onto the international scene in the late ’80s, I went to ’89 World Championships in Lahti, and during that whole time I was naive…,” Wadsworth, a former U.S. Ski Team member, recalled. “You learn over the years, you see enough stuff that you just know what’s most likely an athlete that’s doping. You can’t come out and say, ‘Yeah, for sure,’ unless you see the needle going in the arm.”

That’s what makes the current case so complex, with the head of the Sochi anti-doping lab, Grigory Rodchenkov, releasing a list of Russian Olympians handpicked to receive illegal drugs at the 2014 Games.

It’s his word — a man whom the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) accused of taking bribes and destroying more than 1,400 samples, who was forced to resign and now lives in Los Angeles — against the Russian government’s. The tests were allegedly tampered with, so investigators will have to find evidence elsewhere to convict athletes like Alexander Legkov, who won gold in the final race of the Sochi Olympics, the 50-kilometer freestyle mass start.

The Russian Sports Ministry might even sue The New York Times, according to RT, a Russian government-funded media outlet.

“We are considering a lawsuit,” Russia’s Deputy Minister of Sports Yury Nagornykh told the Russian News Agency TASS. “They asked us to give comments on 66 athletes who are a part of Russia’s ‘doping program’. We said that we don’t have such a program.”

Rodchenkov claimed he concocted a “three-drug cocktail of banned substances” mixed with liquor, with “one milligram of the steroid mixture for every milliliter of alcohol.”

Apparently, he dissolved the drugs in alcohol to speed up the absorption, making Chivas whiskey for men and Martini vermouth for women.

“All athletes are like small children,” Rodchenkov told The New York Times (NYT). “They’ll put anything you give them into their mouths.”

“Athletes drink Chivas before competing? I can’t take it seriously,” Russian cross-country skier Sergey Ustiugov, who was not named in the NYT report but competed at the 2014 Olympics, told RT.

Alexander Legkov celebrates Russia's silver in the men's 4 x 10 k relay, their nation's first medal in cross-country at the Sochi Olympics. He went on to win gold in the final race of the Sochi Games, the 50 k freestyle mass start, and Russia swept the podium.
Alexander Legkov (standing) celebrates Russia’s silver in the men’s 4 x 10 k relay, their nation’s first medal in cross-country at the Sochi Olympics. He went on to win gold in the final race of the Sochi Games, the 50 k freestyle mass start, and Russia swept the podium.

“What happened yesterday [the release of NYT article] is totally absurd,” Legkov said at a press conference. “Alcohol with steroids is ridiculous. I didn’t take a sip of alcohol when I was meeting with friends because I was preparing for the Olympic Games. I know nothing about steroids, I don’t know how they look like. I took the article as an April [Fools’] joke.”

Legkov also called Rodchenkov’s comments groundless.

“It is a political game. Everybody is set against our country because it is one of the strongest in the world,” he said.

The NYT pointed out that, according to WADA statistics, Russia had the highest number of athletes caught doping in 2014.

While Russia fights to defend its winter athletes, its sport officials are simultaneously trying to ensure their track-and-field athletes can compete at the 2016 Summer Olympics in August in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

“Serious mistakes have been made by the federation management, along with athletes and coaches who have broken anti-doping rules and neglected the principle of fair play,” Russia’s Minister of Sport Vitaly Mutko wrote in a statement to the British newspaper, The Sunday Times, this weekend. “Let us be clear. We are ashamed of them.”

Track and fields’ international governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), suspended Russia’s athletics team in November following a WADA investigation that found it guilty of state-sponsored cheating.

“We do not deny having a problem in Russia, and we are doing everything possible at state level to eradicate doping, including punishing athletes and coaches,” Mutko wrote.

Russia will find out June 17 whether its track and field team will be allow to compete in Rio.

“We are very sorry that athletes who tried to deceive us, and the world, were not caught sooner,” Mutko added. “We are very sorry because Russia is committed to upholding the highest standards in sport and is opposed to anything that threatens the Olympic values.”

‘The Needle Going in the Arm’

Cobb didn’t witness doping firsthand, but his opinion on the matter goes back to one of his first Olympic experiences, a night or two before the first race in Albertville, France.

“We were up in Les Saisies and one of our coaches who I was in the sauna with was dragged out to go help translate between a Russian coach and the village medical doctor,” Cobb recalled of the 1992 Games. “Because our coach’s English wasn’t that good, I went along to help translate as well. The situation was, the Russian coach said, ‘One of our athletes is very sick and will die if he doesn’t get a cortisone injection.’ So I was helping to translate that to the French doctor, who spoke English pretty well.”

While emphasizing that point over the next few minutes, the Russian coach explained that the athlete was having an allergic reaction to a protein injection he received.

“The French doctor said, ‘Yes, I know. I can see that he’s having an allergic reaction, but cortisone is a controlled and banned substance, and unless I can examine the athlete I can’t give it to him,’ ” Cobb recalled. “ ‘And yes, I know he will die if I don’t give it to him.’

“That was really how my experience at the Olympic Games began,” Cobb continued. “That was the case of [Russian biathlete] Sergei Tarasov, who was given an injection of blood that was either not his own or had been spoiled by not being refrigerated in an effort to blood dope him before the first race in Albertville.”

That story surfaced last year when Tarasov, who went on to win an individual gold at the 1994 Olympics, turned 50 and gave an interview to a Russian magazine.

Cobb recalled that story and compared it to the current accusations against Russian athletes across multiple Olympic sports.

“This is an issue that has been a violation of the basic principles of sport, that has been — because it was, in many cases forced on athletes with the threat of losing their support if they didn’t comply — an issue that needs to change,” he said. “I believe that with whistleblowers, athlete insiders and RUSADA [Russian Anti-Doping Agency] insiders coming forward at this time, taking the immense risk to come forward and tell what’s going on in an effort to change the system, that incredible sacrifice on their part needs to be met with support from sports leaders. If we don’t support that now, I’m sure it will be decades before it would ever happen again.”

Cobb didn’t see the needle going in Tarasov’s arm back then, and he, like everyone but Rodchenkov who has so far come forward about the 2014 Olympics, didn’t witness the Russians cheating in Sochi.

The Russian podium grinning ear-to-ear after Alexander Legkov (3) won gold, Maxim Vylegzhanin (7) earned his third silver in Sochi, and Ilia Chernousov took bronze in the 50 k freestyle mass start, the last race of the 2014 Winter Games.
The all-Russian podium in the Sochi Olympics 50 k freestyle mass start, with Alexander Legkov (3) placing first, Maxim Vylegzhanin (7) in second for his third silver medal of the Games, and Ilya Chernousov (8) in third.

But Wadsworth claimed that’s what the Russians were up to immediately after they swept the podium in the 50 k, with Legkov leading fellow countrymen Maxim Vylegzhanin and Ilya Chernousov across the finish, respectively.

“If Rodchenkov knew my story, he would not even mention my name,” Legkov told MatchTV, according to a translation. “Since 2010, I have been working with foreign experts, I am absolutely not with Russian coaches, live all the time in Switzerland in an apartment in Davos. Before the Olympics, I have taken 33 doping tests.”

In 2011, Legkov began training with coach Reto Burgermeister, a former Swiss skier, and Isabelle Knaute, a German physical therapist who previously worked for the Swiss national team. Markus Cranmer, a former German junior & U23 team coach, became Legkov’s new personal coach (along with Sergey Turyshev’s) last September.

Meanwhile, Chernousov was another athlete who trained independently of the national team. After the Sochi Olympics in the spring of 2014, Chernousov began working with Vegard Bitnes, a Norwegian coach.

“We were one of the groups from [Russian] Federation, (Reto Burgermeister/Isabelle Knaute was an other),” Bitnes explained in an email to FasterSkier. “I planned all training, and had all control of training … we had our own camps and training.”

In the last two years, Bitnes explained that he and Chernousov only joined the Russian national team for two or three training camps, holding more camps with other national teams, like Sweden.

“We had some camps with Team Northug [Norwegian Petter Northug’s personal team], also with the Canadian team,” Bitnes wrote. “We was in some sport events in Norway, where we had trainings with French team, also US ski team athlete… So, we was almost never with the RUS team.”

Technically, Bitnes was a Russian national-team coach. He recently parted ways with Chernousov to become the head women’s coach of the Austrian biathlon team, effective May 1.

“The end of my work has nothing to do with the latest from RUS team,” he wrote. “I wanted to turn back to the IBU and Biathlon again. I hope for the best for Ilya and his training in the future.”

As for the allegations that 14 of 20 Russian cross-country skiers in Sochi — which may or may not include Chernousov — were doping, Bitnes wrote, “I can not comment so much, because it is from a time before I had anything to do with the RUS team. I can only say that it’s frightening to see/hear about this. Based on a general base. I hope WADA and IOC [the International Olympic Committee] will get to the bottom of those obligations, so we can clean up this mess. If this is true, its a very very sad thing.”

The Russians celebrate their silver medal in the men's 4 x 10 k relay at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
The Russians celebrate their silver medal in the men’s 4 x 10 k relay at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, with (from left to right) Dmitriy Japarov, Maxim Vylegzhanin, Alexander Bessmertnykh, and Alexander Legkov.

Wadsworth is confident it’s true. The former Canadian coach recalled suspecting something fishy was going on with the Russians during the men’s 4 x 10 k relay in Sochi as he watched Legkov put down the fastest time on the third leg.

“What I saw with the rest of his form that year and on that course, when I saw him hop-skating pretty much the whole course, especially the last hill coming into the stadium, the way he was looking on his face after pushing so hard — because the Russians were quite far behind and he really pulled them into medal contention in that race — and I just didn’t believe what I saw,” Wadsworth said. “And then in the 50 k, it was, at the end, the pace and the pushing. In the early part of the race, there were so many guys up toward the front, but in the last few kilometers, again, it just didn’t look right to me. And I always carefully think that through in my head as far as, is this a great performance we’re seeing or is this something else? And what I saw, I just thought it was something else.”

“I always carefully think that through in my head as far as, is this a great performance we’re seeing or is this something else? … I just thought it was something else.” — Justin Wadsworth

So he spoke out about the Russians after the 50 k and accused them of doping in a post-race interview with FasterSkier. FS then asked Legkov what he thought of Wadsworth’s accusation in the post-race press conference. Legkov laughed off the comment.

“I have to always be clear with this, I wasn’t making any excuses for our team, I was simply commenting on something I saw from the athletes on the field of play,” Wadsworth recalled this past Saturday.

“I fully accept our team’s preparation for the Games and our waxing issues … we had our own issues and we debriefed those and learned from those,” he continued. “But I think if I was potentially another coach who had athletes, like [Norway’s Martin Johnsrud] Sundby, who was fourth in that race and missed out on a chance at a medal … I guess I’m always surprised the Norwegians don’t speak out. They have so much power in our sport and they chose to do nothing with it except make things better for themselves on the World Cup.”

An email to Vidar Løfshus, director of the Norwegian Ski Federation, seeking comment on the recent allegations against Russia was not returned by press time.

“It’s just really surprising to me that nobody wants to speak out more. I can understand we all want to focus on our teams and on our own business, but that’s not to the point when there’s something going on like systematic doping,” Wadsworth said.

As for the athletes, “I expect them to focus on their training and themselves, but when it comes down to it, if there’s enough evidence and they’re tired of it, then they should probably speak up,” he added. “The athletes do have a powerful voice and they should use their athlete representatives to push FIS to do a better job and to push the IOC.”

Shocked But Not Surprised 

One athlete who carefully crafted his responses in an email to FasterSkier was France’s Robin Duvillard, who placed sixth in the 50 k. Should the Russian cross-country team be disqualified and its results voided in Sochi, Duvillard would move up to third place and technically a bronze medal in that race.

France's bronze-medal men's 4 x 10 k relay team at the Sochi Olympics. From left to right: Ivan Perrillat Boiteux, Jean Marc Gaillard, Maurice Manificat, and Robin Duvillard.
France’s bronze-medal men’s 4 x 10 k relay team at the Sochi Olympics: (from left to right) Ivan Perrillat Boiteux, Jean-Marc Gaillard, Maurice Manificat, and Robin Duvillard.

“I would like to be clear about the fact that what I read in the newspaper yesterday are only suspicions,” Duvillard wrote on Friday. “I don’t want to blame them if some of the information is not true.”

If everything in the reports is true, “I am shocked, sure. But not really surprised,” the 32-year-old continued. “I am shocked about the fact that it was organized by the authorities. Not because some athletes are doped. In the past, we already discovered that athletes were doped, and I know that it can happen again.”

In Sochi, Duvillard stood on the podium with three teammates, earning bronze in the men’s relay behind Sweden in first place and Russia in second.

“The only thing we can do is to trust [WADA] AMA to achieve anti-doping tests,” he wrote. “And what I have read yesterday is that they failed in Sochi, because Russian authorities were more powerful than them. But now I need to keep my faith in AMA’s work if I want to live my sport serenely and not getting paranoiac.”

Considering the news that immediately followed the 2014 Olympics, in which Russian skiers stated they had used xenon gas in training — a controversial but not-yet-banned substance (before WADA banned it in May 2014) — along with the Russian-athletics scandal unveiled last year, Duvillard had his suspicions.

“I suspected that a doping scandal could break out in Sochi, considering the bunch of money they put into it, and because Putin wanted to show the world that Russia is still shining,” he wrote. “But I can’t say I really suspected the cross country athletes being doped in the 50k. Sure, they were way faster than me in the last hill, but they were faster many many times in the past, so why not once again?”

Since the NYT report hit the world wide web last Thursday, Duvillard has received numerous messages congratulating him on the potential bronze medal.

“In a way, I would be glad to get this medal, because that would award all the work I have done to get in shape on that race,” he wrote. “But in another way, the party would be spoiled forever! Because any time I would watch again that 50k, I would find myself crossing the line in 6th place, and any time I would watch the closing ceremony with that amazing podium into the stadium, I wouldn’t see me on it.”

“Sure, they were way faster than me in the last hill, but they were faster many many times in the past, so why not once again?” — Robin Duvillard, sixth in the men’s 50 k at the 2014 Sochi Olympics

The redistribution of medals is a drawn-out process that involves legal battles handled by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, but if you ask Wadsworth, whose wife fought for her medal two years after the fact, it needs to happen.

“If nobody does anything, nothing’s going to change,” Wadsworth said. “… It’s great for [Beckie] to have the gold medal in the house and get recognized for that, but on the day, that’s what you as an athlete, that’s what you dream about, that’s what you work hard towards and when you get that robbed from you, it doesn’t matter what happens in the future.

Alexander Legkov (3) beat out fellow Russians Maxim Vylegzhanin (not shown) and Ilya Chernousov (r) for gold in the Sochi Olympics 50 k freestyle mass start -- the last race of the 2014 Games. Vylegzhanin took silver by 0.7 seconds, just a tenth of a second ahead of Chernousov in third, and Norway's Martin Johnsrud Sundby (1) missed a medal by 0.2 seconds in fourth.
Alexander Legkov (3) beat out fellow Russians Maxim Vylegzhanin (not shown) and Ilya Chernousov (r) for gold in the Sochi Olympics 50 k freestyle mass start. Vylegzhanin took silver by 0.7 seconds, just a tenth of a second ahead of Chernousov in third, and Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby (1) missed a medal by 0.2 seconds in fourth. Not shown: Sergei Dolidovich of Belarus placed fifth, 14.3 seconds after Legkov, and France’s Robin Duvillard was another 0.6 seconds back in sixth.

“I think what really needs to come out from all this is not the results getting stripped — you know, Robin Duvillard, he might get the medal, but he’s not going to get to feel what it felt like to stand on the podium in the closing ceremonies down in Sochi, to get a medal around his neck, so that whole thing is lost,” Wadsworth continued. “What really needs to happen is things change for the future so that clean athletes have an opportunity.”

Should the entire Russian cross-country team be suspended, some clean Russian athletes will get caught in the aftermath, he noted.

“But those athletes should speak out and say what they know as well because it’s the Russian athletes that’s getting cheated the worst in the very end,” Wadsworth said. “They’re the ones that are going to have the health issues in the future and they’re also the ones that are going to miss out on future opportunities if their team does get allowed to race. And they’re the ones at the end of the day that have to look at themselves in the mirror and know they cheated.”

FIS and the IOC

As for how the International Ski Federation (FIS), the sport governing body for cross-country (as well as several other winter  sports), FasterSkier first obtained a statement on the matter via email.

“FIS is deeply disturbed by these allegations and will provide all possible cooperation to WADA and the IOC with the investigation,” the statement noted.

In a follow-up phone interview on Monday, FIS Secretary General Sarah Lewis said, “We also will make sure that we are looking into our processes which we can control, as opposed to the Olympics where we are playing a facilitating role but not directly controlling the testing.

“Certainly for everybody it’s a wake-up call to what may have happened and what therefore has the potential to happen,” she continued. “I’m very sure that there will be a very careful analysis of the situation to make sure that this cannot happen going forward.”

Kikkan Randall at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. (Photo: Fischer/NordicFocus)
Kikkan Randall (U.S. Ski Team) at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. (Photo: Fischer/NordicFocus)

Kikkan Randall, chair of the FIS Athletes’ Commission who competed for the U.S. in Sochi, wrote in an email that the latest news was “definitely disturbing and if it turns out to be true, it is really unfortunate and unfair for those athletes that competed clean in Sochi and missed out on medals.

“The FIS Athlete Commission had previously written a letter to WADA after the news came out about Russian Athletics calling for further investigations into other sports, especially cross country skiing,” Randall added. “We hope WADA can get to the bottom of this and I know FIS will be in full cooperation to help out however they can.”

As for the U.S. cross-country team, head coach Chris Grover said they’ve been following the news closely.

“I guess our initial reaction is that we are disheartened and disappointed, and really disappointed that there might be a tie to cross-country here,” he said on the phone this weekend before convening with the team for its first training camp of the 2016/2017 season.

“It’s something we’ll talk about as a group but we haven’t,” Grover said. “Every time any sort of doping scandal comes up, we definitely talk about it as a group. It reinforces our resolve by lead by competing clean. And the exciting thing that we have talked about before, is that we know that we can win when we are doing it clean, because we’ve done it so many times before. That’s the silver lining for us … We can’t get hung up in what other people may or may not be doing.”

“The exciting thing that we have talked about before, is that we know that we can win when we are doing it clean, because we’ve done it so many times before.” — Chris Grover

Asked if he had suspicions about doping in cross-country skiing, he said, “I’ve never felt 100-percent confident that the sport is 100-percent clean. I’ve felt that it’s clean enough that we can win. I think that all of us feel that it’s a lot cleaner than it was when we first got involved in the sport.

“We’re really interested in how this story unfolds,” he continued. “We are grateful to the media sources that are following this closely and are doing investigations. We will always, from the USSA [U.S. Ski & Snowboard Association] side, take an active role in working with the USOC [US Olympic Committee] and FIS to ensure that proper steps are taken, that we are getting a clean sport and a level playing field.”

Grover is also chairman of the FIS Cross Country World Cup and Continental Cup sub-committees. FIS plans to meet in Cancun, Mexico, for its 50th International Ski Congress from June 5-11.

“To be perfectly honest, the situation was and is on the agenda based on the WADA report on November,” Lewis said of the planned discussion of Russia at those meetings. “It’s on the agenda of the Council. The Congress is not dealing with daily business … The whole WADA report and the situation with the Russians is on the agenda of the Council already, and now obviously there is more information to be able to discuss and address.”

Update: The IOC Executive Board held a special meeting on Tuesday with IOC President Thomas Bach calling for additional anti-doping measures. The IOC retested 454 selected doping samples from the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, China, and as a result, up to 31 athletes from six sports could be banned from the upcoming Olympics in Rio. The IOC is also planning on retesting 250 samples from the 2012 London Games.

“The aim is to stop any drugs cheats coming to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro,” an IOC press release stated.

“Swift and decisive action will also follow the controversy surrounding the anti-doping laboratory in Sochi,” it continued. “Meeting Tuesday, the EB of the IOC has requested WADA to initiate a fully fledged investigation into allegations that testing at the Sochi Laboratory was subverted. The IOC for its part will instruct the Lausanne Anti-Doping Laboratory, where the Sochi samples are stored for ten years, to proceed in cooperation with WADA with their analysis in the most sophisticated and efficient way possible.”

The IOC has asked the Russian Olympic Committee to ensure the full cooperation of the Russian side in the WADA investigation.

“Based on the result of this investigation the IOC will take swift action,” the release said.

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Alex Kochon

Alex Kochon (alex@fasterskier.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.

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