This is part 1 /2 parts on the book, The Russian Affair, by David Walsh. A compelling story, Stuart Weir notes that it reads like a spy thriller.
New book exposes the extent of Russian doping.
46 Russian athletes have had their performances in the 2012 Olympics removed from the records for doping offences. Russia will not participate in the Tokyo Olympics for serial doping offences. A new book, [The Russian Affair, David Walsh. London, Simon & Schuster, 2020] by English sports journalist, David Walsh, tells that gripping story of how one Russian couple started a process that brought Russian sport down in disgrace like a pack of cards.
Vitaly Stepanov was an idealistic young man who joined RUSADA, the Russian anti-doping agency, determined to play his part in making the world a better place and stamp out doping. He was, after all, working for an agency whose role was to do just that – or so he thought. Vitaly is shocked to discover the pervasiveness of Russian sports corruption and how RUSADA in compliant in the corruption. In other words, his own bosses at RUSADA were protecting the things he had hoped to fight when he first turned up for work at the national anti-doping agency. Eventually he summed the situation up: “RUSADA is a joke. We paint stripes on a donkey and pretend it’s a zebra.”
A human-interest angle of the story is at its heart. Vitaly and his future wife, Yuliya, have a first date and discover that he is an anti-doping enforcement officer and she an athlete who relies on drugs. The tension between them is never far from the surface. Vitaly sums up the dilemma at the center of their marriage: “He was ruining her life. What she believed impacted him in marginal ways. What he believed was crushing her”. There is no dilemma for Yuliya; she can run 2:05 for 800 normally but 1:59 with while doping. And in any case, she believed, all athletes dope. She was, however, concerned about the unfairness “knowing that other athletes cheated more and cheated better”.
They book explains the basic principles: “They cheated to cancel out each other’s cheating. And everybody believed their rivals were doing the same everywhere else in the world, from California to Kenya. Domestic championships in Russia were a farce. There were drug tests, but the very best athletes were protected and the way was cleared for them to compete at major international meets”.
For years Vitaly was sending information to WADA (The World Anti-Doping agency) but found WADA “long on encouragement and short on action”. WADA’s rules (at that time) committed it to working with national drug enforcement agencies. The idea that a major anti-doping agency would go rogue was outside their frame of reference.
Vitaly is getting increasingly frustrated that WADA is doing nothing with the evidence he is presenting to them, so when Hajo Seppelt, a German TV producer, contacts him and believes him, it is the turning point. In 2014 the German TV channel ARD broadcast a program called Geheimsache Doping: Wie Russland seine Sieger macht (The Doping Secret: How Russia Makes its Winners)*. The program started the process which led to Russian Athletics being banned from 2016 Olympics and subsequent world championships. The documentary was based on evidence gathered by Vitaly and Yuliya Stepanov.
Initially reluctant, Yuliya becomes disillusioned and is persuaded to have conversations with athletes, coaches and officials. She records the conversations in which they talk openly about doping – the evidence on which the documentary is based. By the time the documentary airs, the couple are safely in the West.
The couple were then invited to the White House. As the book puts it: “On 31 October 2018 came the invitation to the White House. With Vitaly, she prepared the words she would say. From a first, tentative date between a doped athlete and an anti-doping tester to jointly writing a speech for a visit to the White House was quite the journey”.
In part 2 we will look at the extent of the state backing doping with extracts from the book.
The program (in German) can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FKaiY9y7Gxg
A transcript of the program in English can be found at https://athleticsillustrated.com/how-russia-makes-champions-geheimsache-doping-wie-russland-seine-sieger-macht/