By Molly Stazicker
February 7, 2024
Much like Mark Twain, Russian doping whistleblower Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov says that reports of his death have been greatly exaggerated.
“In Russian press, it is written that I am killed, but I am alive and working hard,” Rodchenkov, who is under FBI protection, recently told CNN Sport.
Given he’s in the FBI’s witness protection program, the 65-year-old confirms his identity – “Yes, I am Grigory Rodchenkov” – in his distinctive Russian accent via a call setup by his lawyer, Jim Walden.
The leading character of the Oscar-winning Netflix documentary Icarus, Rodchenkov masterminded Russia’s state-sponsored doping program which benefited more than 1,000 athletes between 2011 and 2015.
Rodchenkov’s claims formed the basis of the 2016 McLaren Report, which concluded that the Russian state conspired with athletes and sporting officials to undertake a doping program that was unprecedented in its scale and ambition in a “systematic and centralized cover-up.” Rodchenkov also said that he was ordered to conceal the drug use of Sochi 2014 medal winners.
But everything changed in 2015 for the whistleblower when he said that he fled Russia for the US after receiving a warning that his life was in danger.
Russia has consistently denied the claims of Rodchenkov, who is also the former head of Moscow’s anti-doping laboratory, and continually tried to discredit him.
That’s despite the fact that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has backed Rodchenkov’s evidence, describing him as “a truthful witness.”
In July 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin dubbed Rodchenkov “a man with a scandalous reputation,” while Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov described the whistleblower’s claims as “defamation by a defector,” adding that he “wouldn’t trust these types of unfounded statements.”
The Russian government also said that Rodchenkov had personally given drugs to the athletes, who were allegedly unaware that they were taking banned substances.
‘Symbols of murder and rape’
The Paris Olympics are fast approaching. In December 2023, after months of speculation, the IOC announced that Russian and Belarusian athletes who have qualified for Paris 2024 will be
eligible to compete as Individual Neutral Athletes (AINs) provided they meet certain requirements given Russia’s ongoing war on Ukraine with the backing of Belarus.
In written comments to CNN Sport, Rodchenkov said: “The Russian flag and anthems have become symbols of murder and rape – they should be banned from the [Olympic] games forever,” describing the war as “unthinkable” and “uncivilised.”
When offered a right of reply by CNN, neither the IOC nor the Russian Olympic Committee responded to Rodchenkov’s comments.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Ukrainian investigators have noted multiple instances of sexual violence in Ukraine, including rape, at the hands of Russian soldiers they say are using such crimes as a weapon of war.
The Ukrainian suburb of Bucha has also become a byword for war crimes, with reports of indiscriminate shelling and executions highlighting the atrocities of Russian occupation.
“There is no question that – if the IOC wants to have any credibility – it would ban them [Russian athletes] for 10 years, no less,” Rodchenkov said.
As it stands, of the 4,600 athletes from around the world who have qualified for Paris 2024 so far, only 11 AINs have qualified – six with a Russian passport and five with a Belarusian passport.
The IOC maintains strict eligibility conditions for those AINs who qualify for the 2024 Olympics; athletes who actively support the war on Ukraine cannot compete, nor can those contracted to their country’s military or national security agencies.
Teams of athletes with a Russian or Belarusian passport will not be considered.
One of the fundamental principles of the Olympic Charter is that the “Olympic Movement shall apply political neutrality.” The IOC does not want to see individual athletes punished for the actions of their governments.
International sporting federations have the first say on whether Russian and Belarusian athletes can even attempt to qualify for the Olympics.
But it’s not so simple. Despite the IOC’s decision to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete as AINs, World Athletics has upheld the ban, meaning no Russian or Belarusian nationals will make it to one of the Games’ most popular spectacles – athletics, also known as track and field – in Paris.
He ‘doesn’t take himself terribly seriously’
Despite living under FBI protection, Rodchenkov’s lawyer Walden told CNN Sport that his client “doesn’t take himself terribly seriously,” even if he is “under a great deal of stress. He rarely, if ever, lets that show.”
According to Walden, Rodchenkov is a “very intellectually curious person” and “always finds things that interest him and things to do, despite the fact he’s […] in a fairly cloistered environment.”
The whistleblower said that he has written a second book entitled “Doping. Prohibited Pages,” which will be published later this year.
The book will use Rodchenkov’s diaries, which he started writing as a teenager back in the 1970s. He has kept a diary every year since then and says that he was able to take a couple of diaries with him when he left Russia in 2015.
Since then, Walden said that they have been able to bring more diaries to the US, though he didn’t go into detail as to how they were taken out of Russia.
‘When people start going to jail, corruption will decline’
Rodchenkov’s greatest legacy is likely to be the actions he took as a doping whistleblower and the issue of cheating in sport remains of great concern to him.
In an interview with the BBC almost six years ago, Rodchenkov said that “sporting international federations are the biggest problems in doping control.”
Rodchenkov said that he “boldly” stands by these comments.
“A number of federations continue to avoid detection, and even refuse to fully investigate athletes who have irregularities in their blood parameters, the so-called biological passport,” said Rodchenkov.
“It’s not being done. For example, if Russian skiers and skaters with abnormal blood passports were fully investigated, they would have been banned from the Olympics.”
He added, “We know corruption is widespread. Weightlifting and athletics are two constant problems.”
Which is why Rodchenkov is an advocate of a more stern punishment.
“The only way to bring it to an end is to prosecute the organizers under the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act. When people start going to jail, the corruption will decline,” he said.
The Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act, named after the whistleblower, allows the US to impose criminal sanctions on individuals involved in doping activities at international events in which one or more US athletes (and three or more other athletes) compete and which is either sponsored by a US company or the event receives money for the right to broadcast commercially in the US.
The competition must also be governed by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) code.
“The IOC and the CAS [Court of Arbitration for Sport] system cannot stop the problem, and they haven’t stopped the problem. In this way, they have become part of the problem,” added Rodchenkov.
“Using civil law isn’t enough – you need the criminal law.”
The IOC did not respond to CNN’s request for comment, while CAS Director General Matthieu Reeb said: “There is no CAS system. CAS manages arbitration cases and applies the anti-doping regulations established by the sports bodies (civil law matters).
“The criminal aspects of doping and corruption remain under the jurisdiction of each individual State (public law), with the consequence that the same offense may lead to different sanctions (or no sanctions) depending on the State concerned.”
In December 2019, WADA banned Russia from major international sporting competitions for four years over doping non-compliance.
But a year later, after Russia appealed to CAS, the initial four-year ban was halved.
‘Start putting people in jail’
In May 2023, Texas man Eric Lira pleaded guilty to involvement in providing banned performance-enhancing drugs to Olympic athletes prior to the Tokyo Games in 2021.
Lira is the first person to be charged and convicted under the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act.
“Once there are people like Eric Lira, who’s now going to at least face a jail sentence for his activities during the Tokyo Games, […] people will think twice about trying to engage in these conspiracies,” reflected Walden.
Meanwhile, in December 2023, two track and field coaches – Jamaican Dewayne Barrett and Liberian O’Neil Wright – were indicted under the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act for allegedly obtaining and distributing various performance enhancing drugs ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.
The pair – both former elite sprinters themselves – are alleged to have provided prohibited performance enhancing drugs to at least three athletes representing Nigeria, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
Barrett’s lawyer told CNN he did not wish to comment, while lawyers for Wright didn’t take up the opportunity to comment.